by Bill Snyder

Is it wrong to use a VPN to skirt streaming restrictions?

May 17, 2016
Consumer ElectronicsPrivacyVideo

Netflix says some of its customers use VPNs to access restricted content, so the company blocked the tech, raising questions about the ethical implications of location 'spoofing.'

netflix logo usb stick
Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

If you’re a privacy-minded Internet citizen, you may well use a VPN to essentially create a secure and anonymous connection between your browser and the Web.

But not everybody likes VPNs. China’s repressive government, for instance, hates VPNs and blocks them because it thinks the tech weakens the country’s control over the Internet. Netflix, the most popular video streaming service in the world, now uses a similar tactic. Today, Netflix blocks users who try to access the service via a VPN connection.

Why Netflix is anti VPN — for now

Unlike China, Netflix does’t want to keep people in the dark. It does, however, have an interest in honoring contractual agreements with content partners that insist the movies and TV shows they lease to Netflix can only be viewed by consumers in certain countries. To skirt this roadblock, some Netflix subscribers use VPNs and proxy services to “spoof” Netflix servers into thinking the people are in different countries. After Netflix caught on to the trick, it started to block VPNs.

When the issue surfaced earlier this year, Netflix explained its position and said it is working to eliminate geographical restrictions, but until it can, it will continue to block VPNs and proxy services. (The company didn’t respond to a request for additional details.)

The ethical rights and wrongs of the skirmish between Netflix and some of its subscribers aren’t black and white. On the one hand, Netflix has to honor its licensing agreements with its partners, and subscribers who make an end run around those agreements are arguably pirating content. On the other hand, many people who use VPNs say they simply want to protect their privacy and believe they should have the right to do so.

Netflix, VPNs and privacy

Advocacy group OpenMedia takes the privacy-friendly stance, and it launched a petition asking Netflix to rescind its VPN ban. More than 46,000 people already signed it. OpenMedia acknowledges Netflix’s need to protect its IP but also believes VPNs are important utilities:

“VPNs are one of the best and most accessible tools that Internet users have to protect our privacy. Whether it’s from malicious criminal activities, government surveillance and censorship, or simply connecting to a weakly-secured hotel Wi-Fi system, our personal and private digital information is constantly being put at risk and made vulnerable online.”

Not surprisingly, VPN providers also have strong opinions on the subject. NordVPN reached out to various media outlets with a statement in support OpenMedia’s stance, for example, and it also offered a free “emergency VPN.” Obviously, NordVPN’s offer is in its own best interest, but I asked the company if it is aware of customers using its service to engage in Netflix piracy and received the following statement from a spokesperson:

“Since we don’t store user logs, we have no way of detecting the behaviors of our customers, but from user comments and inquiries we know that NordVPN is used for privacy first, and then for accessing global content online.”

Other services are even more upfront about their ability to access restricted content. Unblockus, a $4.99-a-month proxy service, clearly states on its website that it does exactly what its name implies: “We give you an address where the content you want is available. It’s like moving your computer or other device without actually moving it.”

Again, the issue isn’t cut and dry. An ideal resolution will come only when Netflix no longer has to block certain content due to licensing issues and can drop its ban on privacy-enhancing tech.

Given the prevalence of snooping by government agencies and other bad actors, consumers who value privacy are wise to consider the use of VPNs. Piracy, however, is wrong, and people who use VPNs to purposefully access blocked Netflix programming should at least consider the ethical implications of their actions.