Netflix’s announcement on Thursday that it will be disabling access to its content from virtual private network (VPN) servers comes as a huge blow to those users around the world who rely heavily if not solely on VPNs to access the web. While Netflix only just unveiled that it is expanding its service to more than 130 countries, and access to Netflix is considered a luxury rather than a vital internet service, the company’s announcement still puts VPN use in the spotlight, and has many looking at just how widespread “alternative” network access is.
The premise of this decision, as David Fullagar wrote on the company’s blog, is based on the notion that Netflix is working to service the globe as one, with the same content everywhere. He said that the company is “making progress in licensing content across the world.” Right now, some content is only licensed in certain regions, making some shows and movies local-access only. Fullagar said:
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…
This technology continues to evolve and we are evolving with it. That means in coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are.
VPNs are used for a variety of reasons, one of which is to access an “alternative” internet. Users sign onto the public web, and then use a VPN to gain access to a secure network or redirect their network access to outside of their country. Users can securely access a private network (the VPN) and share data through public networks (a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi network, for example).
For others, using a VPN is solely about security; users employ VPNs to access public networks in order to prevent against cyber attacks or the surveillance of unwanted eyes. A VPN encrypts the data flowing between its server and the user — a desirable aspect for users who rely almost completely on public networks to access the internet.
Additionally, users in countries that have blocked certain services on the web such Facebook or YouTube can use VPNs to access those services. For this reason, VPNs are extremely popular in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries that actively block websites or limit web access. So, while users in European countries whose governments don’t necessarily censor the internet don’t need VPNs to gain access to popular websites, they still use them to securely access the web in general, and to share data across public networks.
Not surprisingly, countries in which VPN use is highly popular such as China have tried cracking down on the use of those networks as it directly challenges the government’s efforts to control web access. China’s censorship practices have only worsened over the years, and perhaps it is no coincidence that VPN use has increased simultaneously. In response, China has sequentially shut down VPN services, only to have them resurrected.
Some Chinese users don’t have to worry about Netflix’s changes; China was perhaps the most glaring omission from Netflix’s announcement about it global proliferation. (The others include Crimea, North Korea, and Syria because of U.S. restrictions.) But many users in China use proxy networks, and as they are so popular in China because of the country’s web restrictions, many will find themselves at a loss for Netflix as they had used VPNs to make it seem as though their locations were different to access it. The Beijinger even takes a defiant tone, positing that Netflix won’t be able to outsmart some VPNs. As it writes, people will always find a way.
This debate is a complicated one because while Netflix naturally wants all of the users it targets around the world to have access to all of its catalogue, it cannot deny that using proxy servers and unblockers is sometimes the only way users can access any of its content. There is no telling how it will play out, or even how successful Netflix will be in creating the global service it has in mind.