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Meghan Sali
Why is Netflix cracking down on essential privacy tools?

| February 2, 2016
Why is Netflix cracking down on essential privacy tools?

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When David Fullagar, Netflix Vice President of Content Delivery Architecture, announced recently that the company would be cracking down on users who employ privacy tools while watching Netflix, you could practically hear the groans reverberate across the globe.

The bombshell was dropped only a week after Netflix launched service in 130 additional countries, bringing the total to a whopping 190 countries, and transforming the web giant into the United Nations of online streaming.

It may not be immediately obvious to many, but Netflix's commitment to freeze out customers who choose to use Virtual Private Networks or VPNs -- an increasingly popular, secure way to connect to the Internet and help protect your activities from prying eyes -- is really the effect of lobbying on behalf of media giants who license content.

The technology behind VPNs is one that alters the IP address of the user, such that it becomes impossible to tell where the traffic is really coming from. In doing so, however, it also allows Netflix customers to bypass geo-restricted content, and in some cases even to choose the country that they'd like to route their traffic through, giving them access to content "outside their region." This enrages license-holders, as locking users into a limited catalogue enables them to continue to negotiate lucrative country-by-country licenses and maximize profits.

What is ignored in this debate, however, is that VPN use is perfectly legal, and by far the most user-friendly way for Internet users to encrypt their browsing traffic, and to ensure they have a private, secure connection. What does it say about a web company when it blocks the use of privacy software that has become increasingly necessary in today's era of mass surveillance and big data mining?

Additionally, the use of VPNs protects users from some of the more predatory market practices we know are taking place with increasing frequency. Take for example the case from 2014 when Verizon was caught throttling Netflix, or more recently when T-Mobile was caught throttling all video traffic. In these cases, using privacy tools to encrypt traffic prevents ISPs from seeing what a user is doing -- thus making it impossible for ISPs to selectively slow down your viewing experience. This is a particularly salient point for people living in countries without mandated Net Neutrality rules, but also for us here in Canada who have legal protections, but routinely see them violated.

When all is told, paying Netflix customers should be able to both watch Netflix and protect their privacy. And because there is no way for Netflix to determine whether VPN users are simply employing the service to get around geo-restrictions, they should err on the side of their customers and refuse to block people who use VPNs.

And hopefully in time, and with the support of their users, Netflix will be able to push back against media giants who are taking a 20th-century approach to a 21st-century technology. After all, global licensing would solve this problem to everyone's satisfaction, and we know that Netflix itself hopes to one day be able to offer the same content to all customers.

Netflix users can speak out and call on the company not to block us from using privacy tools at https://act.openmedia.org/netflix.

Meghan Sali is Digital Rights Specialist for OpenMedia, a community-based group that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

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