A lot of wars going on nowadays. The Crypto Wars is making headlines and Netflix has started their own War on VPN. It is actually a battle in the content industry’s long lasting War on piracy, which in practice turned out to be more like War on the customer and War on new technology.
Netflix has recently started to block users who access the service through a VPN service, like our F-Secure Freedome. They don’t want to do it, but are forced to by contracts with content owners. The model for this business was created before the Internet era, and distribution rights where issued separately for each geographical area. The content industry has been unable to adopt to the world of today and these geographically limited contracts are naturally causing trouble in the truly global Internet.
Because of this Netflix’s catalog isn’t the same in every country. The grass is of course greener on the other side of the border so many users attempt to access another country’s Netflix. It’s easy to use a VPN service and make it look like you are in some other country. But this is a pain in the butt for the content owners, who are putting pressure on Netflix to block this kind of users. And VPN vendors can use tricks to circumvent the blocking. So here we have all the ingredients for an epic cat-and-mouse game.
So this is the big question? How should VPN vendors deal with this situation? The restrictions may be unpopular, but there’s a solid legal reason for them. But blocking VPNs also have a lot of nasty side effects.
First the pro-blocking argument. Yes, the geographically restricted distribution contracts are badly outdated and doesn’t fit Netflix’s business model. But they are legally legit and binding for Netflix. So as they state, they don’t like it but they have to ensure that content is delivered to the right country. And as a VPN obfuscates the real location of a user, they have no choice but blocking those users.
The big problem with blocking VPNs is that cheating on geo-blocking isn’t their only purpose. Imagine a man somewhere in the US. He wants to watch Netflix on his tablet from the hotel room. The hotel WiFi is open and feels quite fishy, but luckily he’s got Freedome on his tablet. The bummer is that Netflix is blocking VPNs. He’s not trying to cheat or anything, he’s in the US and using the US version of Netflix. But Netflix thinks he may be a cheater so he’s blocked. This leaves him with two options. Forget about Netflix or turn Freedome off and take the risk of connecting to a fishy network unprotected.
Another example is the national broadcasting company here in Finland, YLE. They have most of their programs on-line, but many are restricted and only viewable in Finland. They are however produced or bought with tax money. Imagine a person living in Finland but traveling, say, 200 days per year. Is it fair if he uses Freedome to watch the restricted content while abroad? He has after all paid his fair share for it, and can’t even opt out of the taxes.
Blocking VPNs means keeping a list of nodes that route the protected VPN traffic out into the open Internet, and denying service to customers coming from these nodes. This is a huge task and the list will never be complete. VPN vendors can fight back by altering the addresses of their nodes. This fight is essential for vendors who market a service particularly for circumventing geo-blocking.
But the situation is different for F-Secure. Freedome was originally developed to protect your privacy and security when using unsecure networks. It can also be used to circumvent geo-blocking, and that feature is no doubt valued by some customers. But it was never the primary goal for the product. So should we engage in this geo-blocking cat-and-mouse game or not?
We are always ready to take our users’ side and speak up against issues like intrusive surveillance and Internet’s privacy threats. But we do not want to be a safe haven for criminals. Circumventing geo-blocking goes into a gray zone. It’s not criminal activity, but it does usually violate the services’ user agreements. It is legitimate for the content owners to protect their IPRs, but blocking VPNs is a blunt tool that has problematic side-effects as well. Assisting IPR violations is not one of our goals, but the problems caused to our users may justify anti-blocking features anyway.
Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to that question right now. So let’s hear what you think. Please check the poll below and feel free to comment.
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