Netflix's geo-blocking crackdown is doomed to fail, assuming the streaming giant even expects it to succeed.
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Netflix triples overnight
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announces at the CES in Las Vegas last week that the streaming service is now available in 190 countries, up from 60.
It's almost 12 months since Netflix officially launched in Australia, although plenty of Aussies had been sneaking in for many years. The streaming giant has occasionally cracked down on foreigners sneaking into the US library, but it was never difficult to find a workaround. These efforts seemed more like token gestures to appease the movie studios than a serious attempt to drive away paying customers.
It was hard to take Netflix's geo-blocking efforts too seriously after it quietly relaxed its block on Australian credit cards a few years ago. Now that Netflix is available in Australia it's even easier to sneak into the US library – you can create an Australian account with a local credit card and then just use a VPN, proxy or DNS-based workaround to trick Netflix into thinking you're in the US.
At last year's Australian Netflix launch there was little to encourage geo-dodgers to make the switch to the local library although, to be fair, the Australian library is not just a subset of the US library. We do have access to some content which Americans miss out on.
Sneak across the border
Thankfully it's simple to jump between the two libraries using a single US or Australian account – if you've got two Netflix-enabled devices in your lounge room then it's easy to enjoy the best of both worlds. Whether this is any better than piracy depends on where you draw your moral line in the sand – you're still a paying customer and you're not actually breaking the law, just the service provider's terms and conditions.
Of course local players like Foxtel don't see it this way, as sneaking into the US Netflix library lets you watch some shows which are only available on pay TV in Australia. Local streaming services Quickflix, Presto and Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media) are also at a distinct disadvantage when Netflix subscribers can easily jump from country to country.
Turning a blind eye?
At last year's CES, Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt assured me that it wouldn't step up efforts to keep Australians out of the US library after the local launch. It was a smart move because, at the time, many Australian subscribers would have abandoned their US accounts and turned back to BitTorrent rather than pay for the inferior Australian service.
Now that Netflix plans to launch in practically every country, it's talking about yet another geo-blocking crackdown to stop Netflix subscribers sneaking across borders. In theory it shouldn't cost the service any paying customers, as they can sign up for Netflix in their own country. It continues to ramp up Netflix Originals content such as Daredevil and House of Cards, which should be available on the same day around the world, and this might be enough to appease some subscribers locked out of the US library.
The big question is whether Netflix's latest geo-blocking crackdown will be yet another token effort to appease the movie studios and local services like Foxtel. History suggests that it's likely to be another half-hearted attempt aimed a few high-profile geo-dodging services which will soon find a workaround lest they lose their own paying customers. Other video services have tighter geo-blocking restrictions than Netflix and people still defeat them.
The only way to effectively combat geo-dodging is for content owners to stop treating Australians as second-class citizens there to be fleeced. To Netflix's credit it's doing a lot to break down these barriers, but it knows that it will never keep us out of the US library as long as the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
Do you jump between the US and Australian Netflix libraries? Is it worth paying just for the Australian service?