Earlier this year, Netflix announced it would begin cracking down on the use of VPNs, or virtual private networks, to access its media libraries.
If you’re like most U.S.-based Netflix-lovers, this may not necessarily mean a whole lot – but if you travel abroad and want to access the Netflix shows you normally watch, or if you simply value privacy online, then chances are you’ve fumed at encountering this screen:
Why Use VPNs for Netflix?
Because Netflix purchases licenses for particular TV shows and movies by country, the selection of content in Netflix libraries across the world varies wildly – the U.S. Netflix library contains 1078 TV shows and 4579 movies; the UK has about half that, with 542 TV series and 2425 films; while Netflix has licensed just 347 TV shows and 1414 movies in Austria.
Tech-savvy users across the globe have traditionally accessed the full breadth of American Netflix anyway by using VPNs, which can be set to display a U.S. location in order to binge-watch the likes of Modern Family and 30 Rock, just two of the dozens of popular shows that aren’t licensed by Netflix for streaming in, for example, the United Kingdom.
Some U.S.-based VPN users want to access international libraries too – “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” is only licensed for Brazil; the 60’s flick “Funny Girl” is only available in the UK and Germany; only Canadians can stream the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies – while others use VPNs to improve streaming speeds throttled by their internet service providers.
Many people also use VPNs as a privacy measure to prevent sites from tracking their online movements and logging identifying information. VPNs can scramble a user’s IP address, encrypt all traffic, as well as mask service providers and geographic location, making them a good option for staying private online, and securing data and internet connections in public places.
Why Netflix is Cracking Down
Gaining VPN access to Netflix has been going on for years, as has the company’s efforts to block such usage – the recent crackdown is, according to Ted Sarandos, the Chief Content Officer of Netflix, simply due to evolving technology that is more effective at blocking VPNs.
“We license a piece of content, like to Canada we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and we’re only playing to Canada,” Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not really fair of us to make it available to the world, without us paying for it.”
Though Netflix has been repeatedly linked to a decrease in movie piracy across the world, the shift of viewers from live TV to streaming services has meant a drop in advertising revenue for traditional media companies. Licensing content has increasingly become a major factor in a media company’s bottom line. What’s free to watch in one country can be a lucrative exclusive for another country’s TV channel – or a bust if viewers can stream them free somewhere else.
For example, some U.S. TV shows are only available on Australian pay TV channels – but Aussie Netflix users could easily watch them for free by accessing the U.S. Netflix library via a VPN.
The pressure could be on for Netflix to show that it is trying to protect traditional media’s revenue streams by geo-restricting content so that it can only be watched by people in the country where Netflix has paid for the license.
“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,” David Fullagar, VP of Content Delivery Architecture said in a Netflix blog post. Until then, Netflix would “continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location.”
Yet a survey by Secure Thoughts of 1000 VPNing Netflix users found that Netflix wasn’t a primary reason for VPN use for two-thirds of respondents, but 84% were more likely to resort to pirating content as a result of the new restrictions.
While it’s tough to nail down how many people use VPNs to access Netflix libraries outside their home country, an online petition by digital rights organization OpenMedia has thus far garnered more than 45,000 signatures from people who oppose Netflix’s geo-restrictions. The organization was also spotted driving a giant billboard displaying the link to the campaign past Netflix HQ in Los Gatos, California.
Despite the ongoing backlash, from these privacy advocates, however, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said that it was coming from a “small but vocal minority [and] it’s really inconsequential to us”.
Will Netflix cancel your account if you use a VPN?
So far, there have been no reports of people losing regular access to Netflix accounts, though an update last year to its terms and conditions gave Netflix the right to cancel the accounts of users found to violating content boundaries, without specifically mentioning VPN use.
It’s possible that using a VPN service for privacy or speed reasons, while watching the Netflix content available to your country, would not count as a violation (though access to Netflix will likely be blocked). However, Netflix could potentially shut an account down if it the account used a VPN to watch content from another country’s media library.
With the VPN crackdown, does that mean password sharing will receive similar scrutiny? In the past, Netflix has proved reassuringly reasonable about sharing Netflix passwords so other people can use your account. In fact, Netflix’s Hastings said, “We love people sharing Netflix,” earlier this year. Of course, he really means sharing with members of your household, not using a co-worker or friend’s login. You may run into issues if you and the people you’re sharing with are trying to watch at the same time. Netflix offers three subscription options to pay for one, two, or four simultaneous streams that can be watched on any computer browser, or device sporting the Netflix app—from any location.
Netflix does not ask whether an account is being used at home or while travelling, so using a U.S.-registered account while abroad – or for a child to use it, say, in their dorm room – is within the user’s rights. (That said, the terms of service say content should be viewed “primarily within the country in which you have established your account.”)
Should You Use a VPN for Netflix?
Numerous VPN services are confident they can dodge the geo-restrictions via various measures that may involve setting a new server (but which they’re understandably not making public).
Smartflix and Buffered VPN are two paid-for services that, with servers across the world, allow users to access the full Netflix library of over 14,000 pieces of content, while VanishedVPN has servers in the U.K., U.S. and Australia, allowing users to appear as though they are in one of these three countries and access their Netflix libraries accordingly (along with other geo-restricted content such as the U.K.’s TV streaming services, Sky Go and BBC iPlayer).
Some online commentators believe Netflix is cracking down harder on VPNs than Smart DNS, a similar proxy technology that simply obscures users’ IP addresses (and therefore location) – handy for using Netflix, less so for maintaining privacy online. Services that are reportedly working include ViperDNS (starting at $1.99/month) or Iron Socket (from $4.16/month),. Check this page, which pledges to maintain an updated list.
It’s important to note that using a VPN service is legal; what’s against Netflix’s terms of services is accessing geo-restricted content. Simply travelling abroad and logging into Netflix would afford access to that country’s media library – adding another shade of gray to the whole thing.
Netflix says It plans to eventually have a globalized content library with licenses for all of its content for the 190 countries it’s in. “We are making progress in licensing content across the world… but we have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere,” VP of Content Delivery Architecture, Fullagar, said in a post.“That’s the goal we will keep pushing towards.”
How to keep your VPN and watch Netflix
If you’re a privacy-concerned Netflix user, here how you can use a VPN and still watch Netflix.
1) Create an account at a Netflix-friendly VPN provider, such as:
You can search, browse and play Netflix shows from its international library of more than 14,000 pieces of content (both movies and TV shows), with the handy addition of subtitles in your language, along with Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB trailers and ratings. Smartflix can be used with as many devices as your Netflix account allows. Currently, you can watch video at 720p HD with 1080p potentially coming.
Price:$3.99/month ($3.33 if one-year prepaid), 7-day free trial
This full-featured VPN for smartphone and computers has servers in 30 countries (with more to be added) with unlimited speed, bandwidth and server changes (handy for swapping between international Netflix libraries at any whim). You can have up to five simultaneous connections across the globe, so that a friend or family member can use their own Netflix account free of geographic restrictions too.
Price:From $8.25/month (yearly subscription), 30-day money-back guarantee
Platforms:Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android
If you’re keen to access US Netflix while you’re abroad, this low-priced VPN service has servers in the US, UK and Australia, allowing you to access these countries’ Netflix libraries (along with other geo-restricted content such as the U.K.’s TV streaming services, Sky Go and BBC iPlayer) There’s unlimited data and bandwidth so you can stream as much HD content as you want on up to three devices (meaning that three people could access three different geo-restricted sites).
Price:From $2.99/month (yearly subscription), 7-day free trial
Platforms:Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Windows (phone), PS4
2) Log into your VPN account, select the country you want to appear to be from, and head to Netflix, or whatever country-specific site you want to hit up.
3) If Netflix is a major reason for VPN use, get an app such as IStreamGuide (iOS and Android) to search for movies and TV shows and see where they’re streaming. You can also browse for new releases by country at Flixsearch.
What if Netflix still doesn’t work?
If Netflix – or other geo-restricted content – stops working, try clearing your cookies and cache in the privacy settings of your browser, or try using a new browser. You can also check your IP address at sites such as whatismyipaddress.com to confirm you’re actually appearing to be where you want to be. If not, you may not be connected to your VPN, or your DNS may not be functioning properly, and you’ll need to get in touch with your provider. Failing that, Googling a new, Netflix-friendly VPN or Smart DNS may be your final resort.