Internet users are up in arms over the discovery that Netflix's terms and conditions now allow the video streaming service to not only block accounts that use a virtual private network (VPN) to cheat geographical restrictions, but also to terminate accounts entirely.
At 1am GMT on 7 April, the user CrypticCraig posted in Reddit's Technology sub-reddit highlighting the fact that Netflix reserves the right to terminate or restrict an account without compensation or notice if the user is found to engage in "illegal or improper use of the service", such as using a VPN.
VPNs are services which allow users anywhere in the world to connect to a private network on the internet. There are some free VPN services, but they don't offer a lot of bandwidth, such as Hola.
These are useful for online privacy as they hide the user's actual location, but can also be used to circumvent region restrictions on content - such as tricking Netflix US into thinking that foreign users are based in that country. Users simply pay the US subscription fee and the VPN fee in order to watch what they like, as licensing agreements mean the US version of Netflix has much more content than the versions in other countries.
Although the Netflix terms were updated four months ago on 1 January, it was only publicised that the video streaming service was clamping down on proxy service users by blocking their access, but not terminating their accounts completely.
To VPN or not to VPN, that is the question
In just 11 hours, CrypticCraig's post has garnered over 4,150 upvotes on Reddit and 1,450 comments, showing that the issue is of key concern to Netflix users around the world.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings raised the issue of VPN access and piracy on 31 March during press interviews with Australian media ahead of the launch of Netflix down under, where an estimated 200,000 Australian users have been using VPNs and US Netflix accounts to stream content for quite a long time since the service was not available in their country.
"The VPN scenario is someone who wants to pay and can't quite pay. The basic solution is for Netflix to get global and have its content be the same all around the world so there's no incentive to [use a VPN]. Then we can work on the more important part which is piracy," Hastings told Gizmodo Australia.
"The key thing about piracy is that some fraction of it is because [users] couldn't get the content. That part we can fix. Some part of piracy however is because they just don't want to pay. That's a harder part. As an industry, we need to fix global content."
Restricting VPNs will drive users to pirate content
However, a lot of users have posted on Reddit that they feel they are not doing anything illegal because they are paying Netflix for a US account, rather than simply illegally downloading the movies and TV shows they want to watch. It is possible to illegally download content from peer-to-peer file sharing websites and illegal streaming services that mimic Netflix.
"With Netflix's recent launch in Australia, and our rather woeful library to accompany it, you're damn right I'll use a VPN to get more content," posted the user Quirkhall, whose comment has been liked over 3,000 times.
"If the studios seriously force Netflix to ban accounts that use VPNs, I'll just go back to pirating everything. Move with the times; give us the content we want how we want it, not the way YOU want us to watch it."
Another Reddit user KaelumForever feels that the movie studios and Netflix are spurring content pirates on, rather than convincing them to stop: "It's no wonder people pirate so much, there are tons of pirates out there that do it specifically because there is no easy way to get hold of it. If you want people to stop pirating your stuff, make it available and easily accessible.
"Put it on Netflix, or write plugins for Kodi or other media centres. Hell, be lazy and build an API and let others build the plugins for you. Trust me, they will build it for you. And most of all, don't wait for a year to make it available after the show ended.
"Most 'pirates' are willing to pay for content, but if you don't give people an option then it's your own damn fault your stuff gets pirated so much."