Netflix starts to ban VPN and Smart DNS (maybe)

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

January 5, 2015

In theory the internet is a wonderful and democratic tool that allows users to share ideas and access content with equal ease wherever they are in the world. In practice, content creators divide the world up into arbitrary geographic regions so that they can offer lucrative licensing contracts to local content providers.

The result is that users in much of the world can only (legally) access content such as TV shows much later than everyone else (if at all), and often at much higher costs. The US version of Netflix has a library, for example, that is around three times the size of that available to UK residents, while users in Australia find it difficult to access a lot of content at all, unless they pay for expensive cable subscriptions (and even this content often arrives months after it was first aired in the US).

For tech-savvy internet users who have not simply turned to copyright piracy instead, an easy and low cost solution to this problem is use either a VPN or Smart DNS service, which allows you to ‘geo-spoof’ your actual location, making it appear as if you are accessing the internet from another location.

By far the most popular reason to geo-spoof is to access the US version of Netflix, and Hollywood has long been frustrated by the fact that Netflix has always refused to crack down on this practice – it does require that users access the service from a (easily spoofed) US IP address, but has so far made no further effort to block overseas users, and will quite happily accept subscription payments from overseas addresses and credit card cards.

Australian owned media giant Newscorp even went so far as to accuse the estimated 50 to 200 thousand Australians who use VPN to access Netflix movies of being pirates, even though they pay for the service.

However, according to a post on reddit and confirmed by Smart DNS services UnoTelly and Unblock-Us, which was picked up by TorrentFreak and has since received wide coverage on the internet, Netflix appears to be bowing down to corporate pressure, and reversing its hitherto liberal access policy.

The most concrete evidence of this is that the latest version of its Android app (version 3.7.2) forces the use of Google DNS servers, overriding custom DNS settings implement by the user, which makes it very difficult use DNS based location spoofing (although UnoTelly offers some workarounds).

In addition to this, a sizable number of VPN users have reported an increase in problems when accessing the service. As Ben Van der Pelt from TorGuard explained to TorrentFreak,

This is a brand new development. A few weeks ago we received the first report from a handful of clients that Netflix blocked access due to VPN or proxy usage. This is the very first time I’ve ever heard Netflix displaying this type of error message to a VPN user…. At this time the blocks do not seem aggressive and may only be targeted at IP ranges that exceed too many simultaneous logins.

For its part, Netflix has denied the rumors, telling Engadget that,

There have been no changes to our VPN policies.

There is no getting away, however, from the fact that the newly updated app effectively scuppers DNS based geospoofing, nor has any alternative explanation for the rising number of VPN users blocked from using the service been offered. At least as far as Van der Pelt is concerned, something ominous is going on,

I have a sneaking suspicion that Netflix may be testing these new IP blocking methods temporarily in certain markets.

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