Will Netflix succeed in blocking VPN access?

For a year, polytechnic student Anne has been enjoying a buffet spread of TV dramas, movies and documentaries by accessing Netflix's US site.

She spends three hours on weekdays and seven hours on weekends watching TV series on the entertainment streaming service.

She has been doing this using a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) service that masks where she is from, giving her access to content not available outside the US.

All that is about to change.

Netflix, which was launched in Singapore early this month, said in its blog on Jan 14 that it will be blocking VPN access soon due to content rights.

Anne, 20, who declined to give her full name, said: "Netflix Singapore's catalogue is very limited as compared to that of other countries."

Netflix said this is due to content rights, which are not the same for every region.

It said: "For now, given the historic practice of licensing content by geographic territories, the TV shows and movies we offer differ, to varying degrees, by territory."

Anne is considering unsubscribing from Netflix if she is unable to access its overseas sites through VPNs.

She said: "I can always watch the drama serials on other websites.

"But the web links are sometimes broken and some websites are not user friendly."

Another Netflix user is Mr Wong Zhan Hui, 28.

He spends about five hours a week watching shows on Netflix. But Mr Wong is not concerned about the ban on VPNs.

"I think it will just be a matter of time before Internet-savvy users find a way around it," said Mr Wong, who is unemployed.

But if the ban is effective, Mr Wong may consider subscribing to Netflix Singapore.


He said: "I still like the convenience that Netflix offers, with many movies and TV series on the same platform."

Mr Eric Chan, solution consulting director, Southeast Asia & Hong Kong, Fortinet, said that Netflix will most probably use a method called "IP reputation blacklist" to block and ban the use of VPNs.

With this method, a list of known IP addresses belonging to VPN service providers will be blocked from accessing Netflix.

However, VPN service providers can also quickly add and change their IP addresses to avoid detection by IP reputation blacklists, he said.

Larger VPN service providers, in particular, have this capability.

Users who subscribe to these large VPN service providers may still be able to access Netflix services in other countries after the ban is implemented, he said.

One popular VPN web browser extension is Gom VPN.

Developed by local start-up Nubela Corp, the application has about 208,000 downloads on the Google chrome web store.

Its founder, Mr Steven Goh, 28, said: "We are not very worried about Netflix's ban on VPN access.

"Our company has innovated our application such that a generic ban on VPNs should not affect our users."

But Gom VPN is unable to access Hulu, an entertainment streaming service similar to Netflix that has banned VPN access in 2014.

Mr Goh said that Hulu is very aggressive on banning VPN access.

He said: "Hulu blocks all commercial traffic, which includes users of VPN service providers.

"But this is also hampering its growth."

Mr Samuel Seow, managing director of Samuel Seow Law Corporation, said that the use of VPNs remains a grey area in Singapore.

He said: "There is no law in Singapore that states if the use of VPNs is illegal.

"But it appears not to be illegal as VPN service providers have not been outlawed."

He said that Netflix's terms and conditions prohibit users from working around the ban on VPN access. As the terms and conditions of use is a contract between a user and Netflix, Netflix has a legal right to terminate the account of a user who is violating it under general contract laws, he added.

He said: "In technology, one of the biggest hurdles would be the difficulty in identifying perpetrators as it is easy to be anonymous or invisible online.

"Also, as technology transcends boundaries, there may be uncertainty as to which countries' set of laws should be followed or enforced."

Netflix and VPNs


1. Netflix offers TV shows, movies and documentaries for streaming online for a price.

2. First launched as an online movie rental site in the US in 1997, it began offering content here on Jan 7.

3. It is now available in 190 countries. The content varies from country to country.


VPNs work by masking a user's location by altering his unique Internet address, said Mr Eric Chan, solution consulting director for South-east Asia & Hong Kong at network security company Fortinet.

So, for example, a US content provider which restricts access to the US only can be fooled into thinking it is being accessed by someone in the US.

There are many VPN service providers, both free and paid, he said.

The user just needs to sign up for an online VPN service and install the application on his computer.


This article was first published on January 25, 2016.
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