Et tu, Reed? Big media’s war on privacy (3)

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tells investors what he thinks of privacy advocates

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Back in March I wrote two posts to express my surprise and frustration that Netflix would no longer let its customers gain entry through a VPN or virtual private network. Turns out the problem hasn’t gone away. Also turns out Reed Hastings is still every bit as dismissive of our privacy concerns – and our customer experience – as he was in January.

A lot of the recent coverage of the Netflix vs privacy phenomenon was prompted by my colleagues at OpenMedia, and in particular Laura Tribe, who acts as the advocacy group’s digital rights lead. When I spoke to her this morning, she pointed to the large number of media outlets that have covered the OpenMedia campaign against the Netflix VPN blockade (OpenMedia pays me from time to time as a policy consultant).

In an email letter to supporters last Friday, Laura and her team laid out the case, opening thusly:

Is protecting your privacy and security “inconsequential?” That’s what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings seems to think, based on recent comments reported in WIRED magazine.

It’s time to remind Netflix that privacy and security matter to us. Yesterday your open letter made international headlines.

If you want to throw your name in the ring, the OpenMedia campaign page for Netflix is here.

I’ve got VPNs on the brain these days. Among other things, the use of VPNs is the current topic in my 3rd-year summer class. Almost no one in the room has ever heard of the concept, let alone how tunneling protocols make our online movements a lot more private and secure. I have the usual observation here: if 20-somethings in Communication Studies don’t know how to use a VPN, we can be sure almost no one else does.

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A weak grasp of tools that make you safer online is bad enough. But having Big Media trash VPNs – to the point of wanting them outlawed – makes this situation much worse. In June of last year, I noted that the new head of Bell Media, Mary Ann Turcke, had been busy denouncing VPNs as “hacking” that was putting Canadians out of jobs.

I expect nothing less of the faux populists at Bell, who never met a sentimental excuse they didn’t like. But having Reed Hastings pile on is much more worrisome, given his prior reputation for talking straight with customers.

I’m as saddened as the next guy about being kicked out of the US library. But hey, it’s only entertainment. On the other hand, Hastings’ dismissal of customer concerns about privacy has three consequences that are a lot more unpleasant…

1 – Trivializing privacy and security concerns. Hastings is going to make millions of people care even less than they already do about their online welfare. Almost everyone finds it a pain in the ass to use strong passwords, keep applications up-to-date, learn about phishing attacks. These measures are getting more, not less, important every day. The last thing millions of mainstream users need is feeling even less motivated to look after themselves.

2 – Demonizing VPNs. Hastings is going to create further confusion between legitimate privacy protections and what the content moguls represent as virtual burglary tools. Netflix is especially guilty here because in its online language, it has lumped VPNs in with geo-blockers and proxy servers – a ridiculous over-simplification that serves their expediency a lot and the welfare of their subscribers not at all.

3 – Brandishing “rules” that suddenly matter. Netflix let customers move freely in and out of its national libraries for years without a peep of protest. Now we’re reminded that under the agreement we consented to on signup, we were never allowed access to material outside our country of residence in the first place. This selective campaign of enforcement shows why online terms of use policies work against the interests of customers. Since customers never read them, they aren’t giving informed consent. And content providers, who know this perfectly well, can then invoke provisions arbitrarily, as it suits them.

Reed Hastings has gone about this campaign in a remarkably ham-fisted manner. The ban on VPNs has been applied so indiscriminately that I can’t even gain access to the Canadian library from my real location in Toronto – if I’m using a VPN. If I don’t like the policy and insist on clinging to my privacy obsessions, they told me I can cancel my subscription.

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Ah but there’s another option. I’m not going to leave Netflix in protest. I’m going to go them one better. I’m going to build my own top-secret VPN in the virtual private cloud I’ve created through Amazon Web Services. I’ll still be a loyal, paying customer, but with the privileges we had before they were so cruelly withdrawn – and with good security still in place.

Welcome to the new Netflix.

D.E.