Netflix has been hailed as the revolutionary new content distribution platform for the digital millennium and the 21st century. Partly prodded on by the content piracy epidemic on the internet with regards to movies and TV shows, Netflix came along as a brand new way to deliver content to users over the Internet in an entirely legal fashion. It had long been claimed that piracy was not a result of the malicious intent but a problem with easy access. If you can provide people with an easy way to pay for content, they would have no reason to pirate it. Internet-enabled piracy, but there was a reason behind it; cable companies had sole rights to their original content, and they did not license their shows to other networks. Also, many regions did not have cable service at all, making it impossible for people to watch those shows even if they were willing to pay for it. Netflix offered a way to legally watch TV shows and movies via the internet for a reasonable price and became a massive success.
Initially, Netflix was limited to the US since most of its content repository was produced by American media houses
Netflix wasn’t accessible from other countries as licensing agreements prohibited that. Netflix employed geo-blocking: a method used to detect the geographic location from where a user is accessing content and denying that access if outside a certain demarcated region. While Netflix slowly increased the number of countries to include Canada, UK, Japan, and a few more, the problem remained. People from other nations could not use Netflix; even a subscriber from America would not be able to Netflix if he were on a business trip to say, Germany.
A solution was discovered: VPNs
Virtual Private Networks serve to falsify the point of origin of a request for connection. This is done via tunneling, which implies that traffic is tunneled into a server in a different region and then sent to its destination. What this meant was that a user from Russia could use a VPN like HideMyAss or IPVanish to open Netflix, and it would appear to Netflix’s servers that the connection was being made from inside the United States. The geo-blocking issue was solved.
Bear in mind that this did not mean that people could access Netflix for free; people still had to pay for the subscription to Netflix. However, they could now access the full Netflix library of TV shows and movies from anywhere in the world by bypassing the restrictions put in place by Netflix. The same solutions that help to unblock blocked websites, worked to unblock Netflix as well.
Everything was fine until the company launched the Netflix Everywhere initiative; Netflix was launched simultaneously in 189 countries. This meant that there was no more need for VPNs. People could now natively access Netflix. This was great news because one of the primary drawbacks of VPNs was that it was slow; because the traffic needed to be routed to another server and back again, it took twice the data as a usual connection. Everything was great.
However, that was not the case. It was soon discovered that different countries had access to stunning different number of tv shows and movies. A comparison found that out of the 4567 movies and 1114 TV series accessible in the US (as of January 2016), only 494 movies and 215 TV shows were available in South Africa, 517 and 203 respectively in Turkey, 552 and 222 in Portugal, and 563 and 213 in India. The content library available in non-US countries is massively restricted.
Netflix also announced that they would not be supporting VPNs, proxies, or any other methods used to bypass content restrictions. It was a blanket ban on VPNs, proxies, tunneling interfaces, or any other service that involved bouncing traffic off one server onto another for whatever reason. Netflix did not distinguish between legitimate use such as accessing content from a restricted network and using VPNs to bypassing geographic restrictions.
This is a direct consequence of Netflix officially rolling out in so many countries. Now they must comply with licensing regulations for all countries. When they were a US-only service, they did not bother to do so because they could claim that customers bypassing the geo-blocking restrictions by Netflix using VPNs were something that they could not be held liable for. Also, a reason for Netflix to not complain was that these people who were using VPNs to access Netflix were paying customers. When they launched localized services, however, they had to comply with licensing agreements in the respective countries. If Company A had an exclusive license to broadcast a popular TV show in Country X, then Netflix will not be able to provide customers of Country X with that show. Since VPNs allow users to bypass geo-blocking and access content, Netflix decided to stop supporting VPNs and proxies altogether.
The timing is not a coincidence; if they had blocked VPNs earlier when the service was not available in many countries, they would have lost some paying customers who used the service via VPNs. Now Netflix is betting that a number of shows they do provide in a particular country is enough to keep those users satisfied.
All hope is not lost though
A Possible Solution
CEO of ProtonMail, a company that offers an encrypted email service, is of the opinion that Netflix’s VPN ban can be bypassed by implementing a peer to peer system, not unlike how the BitTorrent protocol works in this arrangement, every user becomes a node for traffic to be routed through. VPNs are implemented by central servers; a service provider might have a server in New York via which are requests are routed, making it seem as if the requests were originating from that server in New York. Because this server is uniquely identifiable via its IP address, Netflix blocked access to these VPN servers. But in this peer to peer implementation, traffic is routed not via any central server but through an individual user’s personal computer. The only way to stop this implementation is by banning access to these “residential” IP addresses, something that is very risky because it would mean banning individual users.
Yen came to this idea from his hypothesis that Netflix is implementing its VPN ban by blocking IP addresses known to be associated with VPN service providers. Although Netflix, for obvious reasons, does not reveal how it actually identifies and blocks connections through VPNs, this is a quite plausible option.
A lot of work remains to be done before this system can be brought out of the theoretical realm and put into practice. A peer to peer system can seem easy to implement, especially because so many already exist. However, the load must be balanced. Obviously, since Netflix US has access to the largest content library, people from all over the world would obviously want access to Netflix US. This would result in connections in the US being oversubscribed and inundated with demand. This can be offset with financial incentives, according to Yen, much like “surge pricing” implemented by the ride-sharing service Uber.
Implementing and developing such a system is not going to be easy, and we don’t have information on anyone working on the same. However, precedent does exist for such a system.
How to Bypass this Ban Right Now?
Hola is a service that advertises itself as a peer to peer VPN and works on the same ideas detailed above. However, it faced allegations that it had serious security vulnerabilities in the system that might enable hackers to identify the users of the VPN and also see (and modify) the content they were accessing. It was also discovered that Hola offers a paid service called Luminati that sells access the network of peers using Hola to anyone willing to pay. This meant that one could get access to the IPs of all users of Hola if they paid Hola. Also, Hola does not enforce any rules and regulations regarding what is allowed on the Hola network; for instance, one could partake in illegal activities like defacing websites or uploading child pornography and the action would be traced back not to the perpetrator but the innocent Hola user whose IP was used to commit the crimes. Hola also had several vulnerabilities that allowed attackers to remotely install software on computers belonging to Hola users, which is a massive security issue. These exploits can be used to install malicious software like worms or rootkits.
Many of these issues apply to any service that resembles a peer to peer VPN network. Hola was the canary in the coal mine, and these issues are vital and must be fixed before a reliable system can be established on the underlying ideas. However, if such a platform can be developed that solves all these security and privacy issues and offers anonymity on the desired scale; it can be a very useful tool for many applications, not just Netflix. This method is completely legal, and if realized, may well be the miracle tool Netflix users had been waiting for.
You can also give GetFlix a try. They offer paid plans that help you override geographical bans that have been implemented by Netflix. We’re unaware how the service functions, but the company spokesperson and users have given a green signal. So maybe you can give it a try. Their prices start from $3.95 a month, and they offer a free 14-day trial after which you can decide if you should continue with the service or not.