First Click: Clamping down on VPNs will turn Netflix subscribers into pirates

January 28th, 2016

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"You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again. For more help, visit netflix.com/proxy."

And that was the end. I couldn't watch Archer. I couldn't watch the seventh season of Parks and Rec that I'm half-way through. I couldn't re-watch Brooklyn 99's brilliant second season. I couldn't finally start Making a Murderer like I promised myself I would do for the fiftieth time that morning. After connecting to US Netflix from my home in Japan for three years through an unblocker service, I was locked out.

I'm not too proud to say I made a little whimpering noise. Netflix for me — like for many of you, I'm sure — has become the de facto TV station, on in the background as I cook, clean, check my phone, or just generally relax in the evenings. In its absence I'd be forced to watch Japanese TV — in reality not the wild and wacky series of gameshows you see on the internet, but an endless stream of mindless cooking shows and low-budget documentaries about trains.

Of course I was using an unblocker or proxy. I've been bypassing Netflix's geographical blocks for years, ever since the streaming service first became available in the UK. I was living in the country at the time, and for months, relied on a quick DNS tweak that would switch the meager British catalog over to its much-wider US counterpart. That particular workaround didn't last long, but by the time it was removed, I knew I couldn't go back to just one country's TV shows and movies.

netflix-error

And I wasn't the only one. Many of my friends had jumped on similar unblocker services as soon as they signed up for Netflix, but even less tech-savvy buddies rapidly came to rely on proxies, VPNs, or unblockers to watch what they wanted to watch. These services became particularly important to me when I moved to Japan two-and-a-half years ago. Netflix wasn't available in the country at the time, leaving me with the choice between Japanese TV and Japan's take on Hulu, a stunted streaming service that advertized Prison Break as its biggest show.

Praise be, then, to Unblock-Us, a $4.99-a-month subscription that — until yesterday — got me into any Netflix catalog in the world. This year alone, I've flicked to the UK version to re-watch Buffy in widescreen, I've changed it to Canada to catch Cabin in the Woods for a second time, and I've flipped it back to the US option to get my 30 for 30 fix. Unblock-Us has been good to me, but other options do a similar job. Sam Byford, my colleague at The Verge and fellow Brit in Japan, swears by TunnelBear — primarily, he says, because it has a bear on the logo. (Sam likes bears.)

Netflix has previously seemed content to allow these services to operate a cottage industry around its catalogs, like tiny fish cleaning the teeth of a huge whale, an insignificant distraction to the larger enterprise. But Netflix executives have now changed their approach. Earlier this month David Fullagar, Netflix VP of content delivery architecture, promised a change, stating that "in coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are."

At least I had some warning, then, and as I found out soon after my screen went dark, Japan's Netflix catalog has grown impressively since the service first arrived in the country last September. After considering how to worm my way back into the American catalog for about an hour, I switched over to my adopted country's version of Netflix and found exactly the same Archer episode I'd been watching, paused in the exact place it had cut out on the US service.

But for those of us outside the US looking in, going back to just one country's catalog may be impossible. Workaround VPNs, unblockers, and proxies have become almost standard issue for us in the years since Netflix's streaming service started its foreign expansion — Americans more recently discovered the same trick — and it doesn't seem like the company is going to be able to offer a true worldwide catalog any time soon. Speaking this month, Fullagar said that although Netflix will premiere its own originals across the globe at the same time, the company still has "a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere."

People may just start pirating TV shows and movies again

In the meantime, the companies that run unblockers, proxies, and VPNs will operate a kind of guerilla war against Netflix's "evolving" methods for their detection. Netflix may even let them scurry back out of sight — it's tolerated their existence for this long, and the tough new stance could be a token effort.

Or it could spell the end for our carefree, country-hopping existence, and with it, the end of thousands of $9.99 subscriptions. That eventuality could be much worse for license and copyright holders, as people resort to illegally downloading movies and TV shows they previously paid to watch.

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