Netflix Blocks the “Unblockers” - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Netflix Blocks the “Unblockers”

Netflix Blocks the “Unblockers”

Sorry, movie buffs. If you have a penchant for watching foreign Netflix, you’re fresh out of luck.

On the heels of the news that Netflix is now offering its streaming service in more than 190 countries, the company recently announced its plan to stop members from using proxy services, virtual private networks (VPN), or other “unblockers” to access streaming video content that is licensed in foreign territories.

Users have reported receiving the following message that directs to a help link: “You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again. For more help, visit netflix.com/proxy.”

So if a user who is located in the U.S. tries to use a proxy to dupe Netflix into thinking that the user is actually in the U.K., the service will boot the user off and only allow them to access content that is licensed in his or her geographic territory.

Netflix is well within its rights to restrict its users from using unblockers to access content that is only licensed in certain territories. In its terms of use, Netflix states that a user “may view a movie or TV show through the Netflix service primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such movie or TV show. The terms also note that “Netflix will use technologies to verify your geographic location.”

So why is Netflix choosing to enforce this provision now?

A year ago, in response to reports that Netflix was cracking down on VPN use, Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt said that the company had not changed its VPN policy but does “blacklist known VPNs in accordance with [its] content contracts.” Hunt’s comments came less than a month after reports that executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment had accused Netflix of breaching its licensing contract by allowing subscribers in foreign markets to use VPNs to stream Sony content.

Netflix apparently continued to allow its members to use VPNs to access content licensed in other regions. However, news of the many technological work-arounds began to spread.

In the wake of hundreds of new licensing deals in countries around the world, it’s likely that Netflix decided it was time to keep streaming service subscribers from virtually wandering outside their physical boundaries. Copyright rights are territorial in scope, and rights holders likely want to make as much money off of their content as possible by signing different licensing and distribution deals in different regions, so Netflix may be facing greater pressure from copyright holders to abide by its contractual obligations.

Companies that provide proxies and unblockers may be gearing up to adapt to any technological restrictions Netflix may impose, but it’s possible that Netflix may take a different route and simply track user accounts. Thus far the company has been pretty hush-hush on how it plans to enforce the content restrictions. Although Netflix is reportedly relying on blacklists of VPN exit points, making it “trivial” for providers to evade the technological block by moving to a new IP address (a number that signifies a specific device), an easier fix may be to record a user’s primary territory and ask users to verify their location if they travel to another country where the service is offered.

Avid Netflix users may be saddened to be restricted by territorial licensing, but, until the company accomplishes its goal of offering users the same movies and TV shows everywhere, subscribers will have to stick to their region.

 

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Sara Gates

Sara Gates is a second year student at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. Before law school, she worked in online media. You can find her on Twitter @saramgates.