“I don’t think we will see any impact.” — Reed Hastings, January 19
“The VPN crackdown is meeting fierce resistance from privacy activists and concerned users, with tens of thousands calling upon the streaming service to reverse its broad VPN ban.” — Torrent Freak, Feb 26
Since Netflix came to Canada in September 2010, I’ve written 51 posts carrying the Netflix tag. I’ve sung the praises of Reed Hastings; objected to the anti-Netflix manipulation of data caps by our incumbents; defended Netflix’s right to operate in Canada over the self-serving protests of our media establishment; and sympathized with Netflix for the archaic treatment meted out to streaming services by the CRTC.
The longest pair of posts I’ve ever written (about 6,000 words) was on the attempt by the CRTC and selected media barons to make life as difficult as possible in Canada for Netflix. That was 2011: Get yer grimy paws off my Netflix: Ottawa’s big OTT scam (part 1, June 16; and part 2, June 18).
There was a single exception. I fell off the wagon when Netflix linked arms with Facebook and produced one of the worst privacy policies I’ve ever read: Netflix showing way too much love – for your Facebook data (Oct 2011).
Which brings us to the much bigger privacy problem Netflix has created for itself.
Stop protecting your privacy or stop watching us: choose one
Starting in January, Netflix began forcing its subscribers to stop using any application that conceals their geographical location. Some subscribers do that because it allows them to access a Netflix library outside their own country. If you’re in Toronto but logged into a special gateway in the US through an encrypted connection, you’re able to watch US content unavailable to most Canadian subscribers. Or you could.
The Hollywood studios and other big content providers have long used territorial licensing to control how they monetize their products (e.g. the regional codes for DVDs). And Netflix has been under pressure from the studios to ensure that when their stuff streams, it can’t be viewed by anyone logging in from another country.
VPNs vs geo-blocking software vs proxy servers. These three technologies can be confused but are for very different purposes. i) A virtual private network or VPN is a platform ensuring your transmissions are all encrypted. Invented for corporate security, especially safe telecommuting, they are “virtual” as they can make it look as though you’re in a different part of world. Personal VPNs are supplied by vendors like WiTopia. ii) Geo-blocking software is made expressly to conceal location, not for security purposes. This spoofing allows users to access content blocked to anyone outside the country. iii) Proxy server “stands in” for a server holding the data you’re after, so as to add security or anonymity, to filter or simplify requests, or manage traffic. Proxies are used across the Web every day by thousands of online businesses.
So what’s the problem? The problem is the ham-fisted way Netflix has been carrying out its blockade:
- Gobbledegook – Netflix has managed to explain its behavior in ways that are both too arcane (on the company blog) and too simplistic (customer support).
- Blame – Netflix has couched the whole issue in terms that make its customers sound like pirates.
- Execution – Not only is Netflix knocking out subs who aren’t using “blocking” software. Even when I’m in Toronto, trying to get into the Canadian library, with my VPN running at the Toronto VPN gateway, Netflix still throws me out.
A tip from the geniuses who ran the music industry: blame your customers
The company issued its first major public warning in a January 14 blog post by David Fullagar, VP of Content Delivery Architecture. To the extent it was intended for the wider Netflix community, it did a lousy job – starting with the language: Evolving Proxy Detection as a Global Service. The post begins thusly:
“If all of our content were globally available, there wouldn’t be a reason for members to use proxies or “unblockers” to fool our systems into thinking they’re in a different country than they’re actually in.”
First of all, nobody knows what a “proxy” is, especially when it’s a truncated version of “proxy server.” Moreover, Mr Fullagar is playing fast and loose with terminology. Proxy servers are no more inherently bad than a computer that can make copies of digital content, like an album or a movie. Oh and the reason for using a proxy Mr Fullagar forgot to mention: we don’t wanna get data-mined or hacked.
The gist of the post is unmistakeable: we don’t give a damn about your privacy, dear customers, because you’re just a bunch of delinquents making our life in Hollywood a pain in the ass.
So there’s no reliable way for Netflix to treat use of a VPN for privacy as deserving of some effort on their part? That’s just not good enough, especially coming from Netflix. But that’s not the end of the story…
Canada’s been through this movie before
In June of last year, the new head of Bell Media, Mary Ann Turcke, gave a speech that earned her the wrath of the blogosphere. During some comments devoted to VPNs, she referred to using Netflix US by Canadians as “stealing”; referred to her own customers who do this as litterbugs; and publicly shamed her own 15-year-old daughter for using a VPN from the family home.
Mary Ann Turcke, Bell Media head and slayer of VPNs
Like other media busybodies, Turcke clearly has no idea what a VPN is or what it’s used for (a subject I wrote about last June and previously in January 2015). Other BCE interlopers have made similar comments, to the effect that VPNs are harmful… even depriving Canadians of jobs!
We’re not alone. Last year, a prominent Australian producer said the only fair thing for the production community down under would be to make the use of VPNs “illegal.” Some of his colleagues actually said Netflix should be banned from Australia altogether. These comments betray how depressingly ignorant these guys are. It isn’t just that they don’t know what VPNs actually do. They also don’t seem to realize how their own business works.
OpenMedia is running a big counter-campaign: take action here
As The Register wrote in a typically hilarious diatribe last April, “a VPN ban would kill the Internet content industry.” How’s that? Well how do you think the studios get their precious productions shipped to Netflix, or for that matter shipped anywhere across the Internet? Through VPNs, that’s how. El Reg makes an example of the strictures forced upon Netflix by Sony in their famously leaked contract (pdf here). Sony requires that Netflix use the very technology the kings of content would like to do away with: VPNs.
(Sony is the conglomerate that let its studio operation get hit by a massive hack in November 2014 because their own security was a joke; and let its music division manufacture thousands of CDs that tricked unsuspecting customers into installing malicious rootkits. See my post, The GOP hack: making Kim answer for Sony’s 10-year online war).
Aside from whether you see merit in these corporate shenanigans, here’s a thought: The Netflix VPN blockade is doomed to utter and complete failure. I’ll explain why in the followup.