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Netflix users fear for the future of unblocked access

Less than three months out from its local Australian launch, a change to Netflix's app has caused some to fear that the company may block access to the US content library for those outside of the country.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor on

A change in the Netflix app for Android that blocked some users from using virtual private network (VPN) services to access the streaming video on-demand service from outside the United States has raised concerns that the company may be cracking down on so-called Netflix "pirates".

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Late last year, Netflix confirmed the worst-kept secret in Australia: That the company would be launching locally in 2015. It has been estimated that around 200,000 users in Australia have been accessing the service through virtual private networks (VPNs) that make their IP addresses appear to be in the US.

It has been suggested that despite the planned launch in March, some of those 200,000 users would continue to use VPN services to access the likely much larger content library held in the US than what Netflix can get access to in Australia.

Those plans may not come to fruition, after TorrentFreak reported on Saturday that the Netflix app for Android began to force Google DNS, making it more difficult to use VPN services.

It may not be as diabolical as suggested, however, with an agent for popular geoblock bypass service Unblock-Us suggesting that Netflix is experimenting with DNS setups, and Google is likely to be the fastest and most reliable.

"We saw a similar issue a couple of years ago on the PlayStation 3, and it became apparent at the time that Netflix and Sony were carrying out tests, which is why not everyone was affected," she said.

Blocking Google DNS at the router level resolves the issue for some people, according to the agent.

A spokesperson for Netflix told ZDNet that there had been no change.

"There have been no changes to our VPN policies," the spokesperson said.

The company's terms of use state that a user may only view a movie or TV show in the country where the account is established, and in geographic locations where Netflix offers the service and has a licence for that TV show or film. The company states it may "terminate or restrict" access to Netflix for users in violation of the terms of use.

The content distributors in Australia have long complained about this practice, saying that Netflix is exploiting the rights held by local companies for that content.

"I'm opposed because Netflix doesn't have the rights to sell those shows in Australia," Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein told ZDNet last year.

"It's a contractual issue. We have the rights to those shows in this country, Netflix is not paying for those shows in this country, they shouldn't be able to show them."

Foxtel has the rights to a substantial amount of content in Australia for its pay TV network, including Netflix-produced shows such as Orange is the New Black for the next season, and up until this year held the rights to the wildly successful political drama House of Cards.

While the service has allowed Australian customers to sign up using Australian credit cards, it is a violation of the company's terms of service. Although some have labelled the users as "pirates", and the practice as "illegal", Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said last year that it is not illegal.

In New Zealand, ISP Slingshot offers Global Mode as part of its broadband services, which allows its customers to access geoblocked services.

Internode founder and then-managing director Simon Hackett talked down the potential for such a service to be launched in Australia, because the ISP would be held liable if a company like Netflix began blocking access through a so-called Global Mode.

"Let's imagine that Internode fielded such a service, and, six months later, having got a great name for it, and having had people sign up because of it, the service then suddenly stopped working for major content services like Netflix, as they caught up with us doing this ... and they would catch up with us precisely because it got popular and hence because it got us noticed," he said.

"Then we'd wind up being crucified by, well, by you guys, as examples of customers who have signed up 'just because of this'. Customers who would then say that we touted ourselves as being the ISP of choice because of this."

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