Is Netflix Blocking VPN Services?
Who knows when the issue started, but when CNN and the BBC start giving updates about topics like privacy, DNS, VPN, and Netflix something must have struck a chord.
About 2 weeks ago, a reddit post entitled “Netflix is Starting to Crackdown on VPN” went up and the outpouring of response was pretty immediate. So we figured it was time to breakdown this story – what it all means and does the Netflix update actually affect you as a VPN user.
The Background on Netflix VPN Blocking
A few weeks ago Netflix pushed through an update on their Android App (version 3.7.2) as they do very frequently. Usually, an app update includes a few bug fixes, some interface updates, maybe a new feature here and there. But this update did something else that has caused this eruption of news.
According to TorrentFreak among others, the Netflix app began to force or hardcode a Google DNS lookup. To the average user this means nothing. But for the enraged, this meant that the Netflix app now prevents being tricked by DNS masking tools.
Before going any further, we should make it clear that use of the term VPN in most of these reports is incorrect and confusing. The term that should have been used is DNS masking tools or SmartDNS. Users of secure VPN service solutions such as IPVanish, HideMyAss or PrivateInternetAccess have reported no interruptions due to this app modification.
image via HowStuffWorks.com
What is DNS?
If you are a loyal FlashRouter reader you probably already know from our What is DNS & SmartDNS post which covered this a few years ago. If you happened to miss that one, we’ll give a short summary.
DNS is a protocol that uses a set of standards for exchanging data on the Internet. It’s job is to convert a user-friendly domain name (like FlashRouters.com) into an IP address (or a string of location-relaying digits) that computers use to identify one another.
Think of DNS server like your cellphone contact list; you tap the name and the phone translates that tap into a phone number.
So there are different DNS servers which produce different lookup results. So one DNS phonebook might tell Netflix to send you to the US version of the site. This is the very simple way of explaining how SmartDNS works. It offers a phonebook that can potentially trick a website into thinking you are not where you are without changing your real location/IP address.
The Netflix SmartDNS Problem
While VPN service has legitimate security and privacy uses, SmartDNS is often tied to the wish to get access to content without a specific concern for an encrypted connection to the Internet.
SmartDNS offers no encryption or IP address changing but rather gives you access to a premium connection list. The benefit is potentially unblocked access without the speed cost of high level encryption and tunneling your traffic over long distances.
This Netflix Android app update actually makes the app check the Google servers which don’t have the phonebook you want to use from your SmartDNS provider thereby preventing you from bypassing any geoblock.
An action like this has also been a danger with using SmartDNS providers as they were exploiting a loophole which most content providers have ignored. But once they decide to close a loophole what do you get but angry consumers who just want things to stay the way they were.
How to Fix the Netflix Android App Update?
According to multiple outlets, issues have been reported with SmartDNS services such as Unotelly, UnoDNS, and Unblockus. However this issue has had no effect on users of VPN services where traffic is tunneled and encrypted through an alternate location or country.
The issue for SmartDNS is that it plays a trick with Netflix servers by sending the domain name inquiry through a US based server, while never masking your real IP address in your native country.
For SmartDNS users, FlashRouters offers a solution in our enhanced routers that offer advanced DNS setup options. A FlashRouter with alternative firmware allows you to reroute the traffic through the Netflix app to the DNS server that you want.
By creating a default DNS within the router, the hardcoded DNS server on the Netflix app can be bypassed and ignored allowing your previous services to work as usual or you can choose to use on of the supported 40+ VPN providers to integrate privacy and encryption via OpenVPN or PPTP.
The Netgear R7000 AC1900 Nighthawk DD-WRT
Using a high-powered WiFi device like the Netgear R7000 Nighthawk or the Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight, allows for network wide integration of VPN services or SmartDNS services with a single setup. Once that setup is done, any device that passes through the FlashRouter no longer be affected by this Android, or Roku, or Apple iOS update.
Not only that but the firmware installed on your router allows you to take full control of your network and settings out of the hands of your ISP. Whether it is boosting your wireless signal or prioritizing your favorite sites or applications like Netflix, a FlashRouter offers a wide range options not available on default routers on Amazon or your local Best Buy.
Why Did Netflix Implement this DNS Hardcoding?
There are many reasons this update may have occurred but one popular explanation seems to be Netflix’s impending entrance into Australia.
A iDigitalTimes piece from September stated that more than 200,000 users in Australia were utilizing VPN for Netflix. It appears that to allay some content provider’s fears in that country Netflix did their due diligence in closing a loophole.
Even the Sony hacks provided proof that they were mad at Netflix’s “failure to block overseas VPN,” according to Ars Technica. So it is not surprising that Netflix would take some token steps to react.
International Netflix Users Ain’t Too Happy
Besides the hundreds of comments on that original Reddit post as well as the heavy action on the many articles from online, this Crave Online headline might just sum it up best, “Netflix Blocking Foreign VPN Users is a Ridiculously Stupid Move.”
From threats of cancellation via protest, the outcry of frustrated consumers has been heard loud and clear. For travellers, international businessmen or users stationed overseas in the military, VPN has become an invaluable tool for not losing access while they traverse the world whether it is the UK, Asia, the Middle East or South America.
Netflix’s Response to the VPN Blocking Revelation
According to a BBC article from CES this week, Netflix “denied reports it had stepped up its attempts to block access via virtual private networks (VPNs)… its existing policy against the use of VPNs to circumvent geographical content barriers remained unchanged. But it said its service would still work via some VPNs.”
Quoting Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt “The claims that we have changed our policy on VPN are false…People who are using a VPN to access our service from outside of the area will find that it still works exactly as it has always done.”
This is a slippery slope for Netflix. Netflix must straddle the line between their appeasing content partners and their customers. Regional distributors are highly protective of their rights as they do bear the cost of these productions.
Netflix is also in the awkward position on its content catalog. In some countries, they are forced to charge up to twice as much even though they offer half the amount of films and TV series.
Differences in country by country Netflix choice can be vast and frustrating. And customers seeing greener pastures in another country, which isn’t too hard with all the information out there, will try to find a way and limitations based on the country they are connecting from, visting, or living in.
The BBC also reported that, “Netflix said it did routinely block the work-arounds using “industry standard” techniques, but there was no special effort being undertaken to block more of them than usual,” claiming “that the company had added a ‘failsafe’ on its Android app to help users whose DNS provider was unreliable.”
Yet, it is doubtful that Netflix would ever base its entire corporate policy on the needs of any single country or movie studio. But they also have no interest in directly violating the will of a country where a legitimate expansion is occurring. Still, there is clear interest for many users to buy the product in Australia and other soon to expanded regions.
But Hunt went on to say about did backhandedly confirm the Aussie factor by saying, “The reality is we blacklist known VPNs in accordance with our content contracts – Foxtel, for example, owns House of Cards in Australia so they kind of like us to block them. But we are not changing our policy. It remains the same as it ever was.”
Conclusion on the Netflix “VPN” Block
These frustration tactics of cat and mouse will likely not work for long as users want access to the same content and level playing field. If a user didn’t want to pay for it, there are many illegitimate sources of this content.
But Netflix has become so popular and loved that users like the convenience and content and consistent quality. Yet, increasingly, archaic regional regulations are crushing innovation and access, forcing users to alternative solutions.
As stated before, many international users have legitimate reasons to connect to the internet through VPN providers like IPVanish, HideMyAss or PrivateInternetAccess. VPN is not used to violate copyright law, it is used to offer Internet connected users security, privacy, and encryption so that they can feel safe in a digital world that seems to be murkier every day.
Whether it is dissidents communicating under an opressive regime or reporters trying to communicate with sources, VPN is a go to method of private activity and communication.
Actions like this from Netflix are a good enough reason to consider taking complete control of your network at a router level with a premium WiFi and networking device from FlashRouters. It only takes one update to ruin the setup on single device but these type of updates have no effect on a network wide setup within a router.
For Netflix to come out directly against a secure and encrypted Internet with a blanket VPN ban on users would be silly and an equally bad PR move.
It is not an inconceivable scenario that a US military serviceman, serving on US territory abroad, is relying on a foreign Internet connection. The only method for gaining and maintaining access to their preferred home content like Netflix would be through a VPN connection. Imagine the headline “Netflix Cutting Off the US Military”, now that would be great for business huh?
Plus The Guardian has the best reason for Netflix to not block VPN customer, “it has too many of them.”
Editor’s Note: This article is intended to be informative to keep Internet users updated about the use of their Netflix subscription in conjunction with VPN. FlashRouters does not encourage users to violate Netflix terms of service or laws related to the rights of streaming service content holders in various countries.