Monday, 5 January 2015

The Netflix Mystery and The VPN Proxy Pirates


I try to be a “good citizen” on the Internet. I am very sympathetic to actors and artist who need to make a living on their craft, so I have subscribed to Netflix, to pay my dues for watching movies and to allow some convenience to have a streamlined User Interface (through my browser) to watch those movies and be less stressed about introducing any malware on my systems.
But when Netflix started to block subscribers who accessed its service through VPN services and other software tools that happen to bypass geolocation I was stunned and as a legitimate user, of Netflix service I was furious.
Movie executives seemed to have successfully coursed Netflix on the VPN witch hunt as the movie studios want full control over what people can see in their respective countries. To be brutally honest I was not even aware I was being blocked at first.


How did I discover this?
Since I write security and hacking articles I run security software on some of my machines and devices to test and report on software. The PC machine I happened to be using was running a VPN at the time. I fired up my browser, logged into Netflix and searched for the series “Deadwood”, which I originally started to watch up to season 2, but got involved with some other projects and did not have the time to finish watching through to season 3.
A quick search on Netflix revealed that “Deadwood” was in-fact an option in Netflix’s library, so I started to binge watch season one. The next day, I decided to watch season 2 of “Deadwood” on my daughter’s Wii console (which supports Netflix, but is not on any VPN). Imagine my suprise when I logged on to my Netflix account and there was no option to continue to watch the “Deadwood” series.

I searched through the conventional search box, nothing. I even looked onto my recently watched movies, again nothing. I was annoyed but decided I should go back to work on my research. So I then decided to go back to my security PC and start some research projects. On a whim, I logged on to my Netflix account and right before my eyes, there it was, “Deadwood” exactly where I left off. I thought it strange, but didn’t think much more of it and just decided to binge watch the second season.
Then the story broke. Netflix cracks down on vpn and proxy pirates.

So What Happened?
Due to the complicated licensing agreements Netflix is only available in a few countries, all of which have a different content library.

You can bypass these content and access restrictions by using a VPN and other circumvention tools that change your devices Internet Protocol (IP) geographical location. Making it easy for people all around the world to have access to any Netflix library listing that your new IP shows your device to be coming from.

The movie studios do not like this and are not happy with these types of subscribers as it violates their licensing agreements that they have imposed on Netflix in exchange for Netflix showing their movie titles.

Entertainment industry sources in Australia complained bitterly that several Netflix subscribed “VPN-pirates” were hurting their business.
So Netflix started to take action against their legitimate subscribers who use these circumvention tools.


At first Netflix’s Android application started to force Google DNS to make it more difficult to use DNS based location unblockers, in addition it flagged several VPN IP-ranges.
This tactic had a limited in scope, so not all VPN users experienced problems. But some of the common VPN providers started to become affected specifically, TorGuard, which started to notice a surge in access problems by its users, around mid-December.
TorGuard’s Ben Van der Pelt stated “This was a brand new development. A few weeks ago we received the first report from a handful of clients that Netflix blocked access due to VPN or proxy usage. This is the very first time I’ve ever heard Netflix displaying this type of error message to a VPN user.”.

TorGuard’s users were able to quickly gain access again by logging into another U.S. IP locations. Some of the blocking efforts were temporary, probably as a test for a full-scale 
rollout blocking for a future date.

Ben Van der Pelt, continued to state “I have a sneaking suspicion that Netflix may be testing these new IP blocking methods temporarily in certain markets. At this time the blocks do not seem aggressive and may only be targeted at IP ranges that exceed too many simultaneous logins.”

Netflix is suspected of testing a variety of blocking methods. Some involve querying the user’s time zone through their web browser and/or mobile device GPS and cross-comparing the data from that query against the timezone of their known IP-address of origin.
TorGuard and services, such as Unblock-us are working to help its VPN users find work arounds for Netflix’s draconian strict ban policy, to provide an easy solution to bypass the blocks.

Netflix’ efforts to block geoblocking circumvention tools should not come as a surprise. It is reported that a there is a draft of the content protection agreement Sony Pictures prepared for Netflix earlier. The agreement specifically requires Netflix to verify that registered users are indeed residing in the proper locations.
In addition, Netflix must “use such geolocation bypass detection technology to detect known web proxies, DNS based proxies, anonymizing services and VPNs which have been created for the primary intent of bypassing geo-restrictions.”


Analysis?
As there has been a recent back pedaling from Netflix that there’s been “no change” in the way it handles VPNs, so you shouldn’t have to worry about the company getting tough any time soon.

This should still be taken as a lesson of understanding of how any information can be censored from region to region. In addition to encrypting your Internet traffic VPNs and Proxies are important. It is really sad in a way that the movie executives spearheading this are punishing paying subscribers so they can have more control over what those paying subscribers watch and where they watch it from.

It just bolsters users to actual piracy to avoid the misdirection, deception from the movie giants. One can only hope they come to their senses and realize that blocking and punishing paying subscribers will only encourage them to take their money elsewhere.
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