Hollywood vs the Boston Strangler
The Kings of Content have always shown an intense and belligerent dislike for new technologies, regardless of their promise or popularity. History is littered with the embarrassing results. Take Jack Valenti.
For over 35 years, Valenti was head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In 1982, the studios were in court trying to prevent Sony from shipping a single VCR to the US because of the alleged threat of piracy. Here’s how Valenti famously described the dangers of the VCR to a Congressional committee:
“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
The court threw out the MPAA’s lawsuit, determining the VCR had perfectly legal applications, the alleged threat of piracy notwithstanding. The irony is that a lot of money later found its way to Hollywood thanks to home video. As recently as 2014, when revenue from in-home devices like VCRs was already in decline, total home video revenues amounted to US$30.78 billion.
Now it’s VPNs. The latest attempt to sacrifice our privacy and convenience at the altar of Hollywood’s corporate welfare program is based on two really misguided assumptions…
Assumption #1: there’s nothing we can do and our customers won’t care
This one’s on Netflix.
When I called Netflix on March 2, I had one message: I can’t get into your Canadian library from Toronto over my VPN and I’m not happy. Support guy took a while to absorb this thought because he was obsessing about keeping Canadians from getting into the American library.
I talked with support guy for nearly 20 minutes, during which time the chat evolved from “I can’t help you,” to his diffident personal view that some day the company might find a way for subs to get into their own country library using a VPN. Reminiscent of the message on the help page: “…there is no reliable way to determine if a VPN or proxy is being used for legitimate purposes.”
I understand why Netflix doesn’t have its heart in this exercise. The company is being hounded by Hollywood to plug leaks in their plan to carve up the planet and suck out every last entertainment dollar. But that doesn’t excuse Netflix. Management should start by at least pretending the company gives a damn. They should also tell their people not to say things like Turn off your VPN while you’re streaming and you’ll be fine. Nope, I may love Netflix, but I’m usually running several connections on top of Netflix and I’m not big on reckless exposure.
And if Netflix continues with its laissez-faire attitude?
First, some people are going to take the advice being given by support: they’re going to cancel their subscriptions.
Second, even if cancellations don’t become a stampede, the publicity will hurt. Apple is going to court against the FBI over protecting its customers’ privacy at any cost. The heightened public awareness of what’s at stake in the privacy wars is going to show Netflix’s indifference in an unflattering light.
Third, by going indiscriminately after all VPN services, Netflix will push Millennials into more filesharing (which till now has been declining compared to all other types of Internet traffic). Frustrated consumers will end up using tools intended to do the very things Hollywood hates. Remember the music industry?
Assumption #2 – We will eradicate every VPN and geo-blocker on the planet
This one’s on the whole industry.
Lurking behind the Netflix blockade is a second and even more misguided assumption: with enough effort, we can kill off the offending customer behavior permanently. They wish. Anyone who’s ever declared VPNs should be “banned” is out of touch with some big trends in technology.
The entertainment industry sees VPNs as a bunch of boxes scattered around the Internet, like, you know, computers. It compiles blacklists of the Internet addresses of all known VPN services so they won’t work with sites like Netflix. But there’s a big problem here, the operative term being “known services.”
I’ve written previously about WiTopia, an excellent service I’ve been using for three years. Sadly, Netflix now has blacklisted all their addresses so, like most established services, it won’t work with Netflix.
Now available in easy, personal, private and cheap
Enter the DIY VPN.
A VPN server is no longer a boxful of hardware you buy and stick in your office. They’ve been “virtualized” – made to function like software, from wherever you are. The technology that does this can be physically located almost anywhere. The collective name for these distant, invisible resources is “the cloud.”
Now imagine you could open an account that gave you a chunk of computer space up there in the “cloud.” All in a window at your desk, no cables to plug in, no software to download. You’d have to configure some settings, which might take 10 or 15 minutes if you know how to follow a list of instructions. When you’re done, you’d have your very own custom-built VPN. Really cheap, free even.
Guess what? You can do all that today courtesy of Amazon Web Services (AWS). This VPN is personal, not part of an existing service. It’s private: no logs, no sharing with other users. Above all, it has an address nobody else can find to put on a blacklist.
This kind of personal VPN is only going to get cheaper, more user-friendly and more functional – like everything in mainstream computing. It’ll be fun watching Sony, Bell Media and the rest of the entertainment industry trying to stomp out cloud computing – and Jeff Bezos.
While we wait for a miracle, here’s something Netflix could do right now: stop geo-locating subscribers by Internet address and use payment information instead. Sure, a few unscrupulous non-American subscribers would set up a US payment address to beat the system. So what? It would still be an excellent tradeoff.
One last question: why doesn’t Netflix have a Chief Privacy Officer?