Open Media to Netflix: VPN use is about privacy, not piracy

Months after Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) announced its commitment to block users accessing its website through virtual private networks (VPNs), advocacy group Open Media is stepping up its efforts to convince the provider to stop, circulating a petition that asks Netflix to end its crusade against the technology. The group says that forcing people to access the SVOD service without a VPN exposes them to privacy threats and, in some countries, government action.

"VPNs are one of the best and most accessible tools that Internet users have to protect our privacy," said Laura Tribe, digital rights specialist with Open Media, in an open letter to Netflix published this week. "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."

The petition had at least 45,000 digital signatures, TorrentFreak reported.

Blocking VPN usage could also drive users back toward downloading illegal content rather than paying Netflix for its licensed content, the organization said.

The letter and petition suggest that Netflix's efforts to block viewing over VPN are having a tangible effect on such users. While early critics of the move by Netflix suggested that VPN maskers could simply shift to a different IP address, such as a personal cloud VPN, to keep watching out-of-region content, media noted in February and March that the provider was being especially aggressive in blocking specific VPN services along with swathes of IP addresses from DigitalOcean, Linode and Amazon Web Services (NASDAQ: AMZN).

The provider's network reach and the sheer size of its tech efforts suggests it can dedicate quite a few resources to the VPN issue without too much added expense.

Netflix Open Connect pops

Netflix Open Connect global distribution: the green circles represent ISP connections, while the orange circles are Internet Exchange points. (Source: Netflix blog)

For example, Netflix began building its own content delivery network in 2011, and now delivers 90 percent of its traffic via direct connections between its Open Connect CDN and internet service providers (ISPs) in the last mile. "Most of these connections are localized to the regional point of interconnection that's geographically closest to the member who's watching," said Ken Florance, VP of content delivery at Netflix, in a March blog post. Netflix also gives its Open Connect Appliances to "qualifying ISPs" to install within their networks and reduce the capacity requirements of delivering online video from the network edge to residential users. "After these appliances are installed in an ISP's data center, almost all Netflix content is served from the local OCAs rather than 'upstream' from the internet," Florance said.

Now, that doesn't mean the OCAs play any role in affecting VPN usage by Netflix subscribers; they're just in place to speed content delivery. Florance goes on to explain that other computing efforts take place in Amazon's AWS Cloud -- "everything before you hit 'play' happens in AWS, including all of the logic of the application interface, the content discovery and selection experience, recommendation algorithms, transcoding, etc." But it does illustrate the idea that Netflix can communicate directly with ISPs to manage the viewing experience as close to the subscriber's home as possible.

Netflix's anti-VPN viewing measures are a far cry from its previous hands-off stance on the issue. Most notably, the company said just prior to the service's launch in Australia that it was not too concerned about folks down under masking their geographic location so that they could watch Netflix content licensed for U.S. viewers, because doing so built up an eager audience for Netflix Australia ahead of time.

However, the SVOD provider's simultaneous launch into 130 more countries in January revealed that not every country was overjoyed with Netflix's sudden appearance. For example, Indonesia's state-run telecom provider (which also provides high-speed broadband in the country) blocked Netflix outright due to what it called objectionable content, as well as issues involving permits to operate as a content provider.

In other countries, much less content is available to view on Netflix because the provider had not yet secured rights to show many films and TV series in those countries. While that issue is part of the reason why Netflix is hell-bent on changing the way content rights are negotiated and granted, such "global licensing" is taking time to work out – and impatient viewers are using VPNs to mask their actual location so they can see the movies they want.

"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," said Netflix's David Fullagar, VP of content delivery architecture, in a January blog post.

However, Open Media isn't likely to give up its campaign soon, noting in its letter than two out of three VPN users are using it for other reasons than accessing out-of-region Netflix content.

For more:
- see this Open Media letter

Related articles:
Netflix blocks VPN proxies to its out-of-region content
Indonesia blocks Netflix as local pay-TV operators, regulators complain about its content
Sharing Netflix, other SVOD accounts is prevalent among OTT households--but how much it matters is relative