Netflix promised it would begin targeting those who use proxies and VPNs to watch geo-restricted content, and now it seems the company is acting on that promise.

According to uFlix, an Australian unblocking service that lets its subscribers circumvent local restrictions to watching content, users recently started seeing this message when trying to watch Netflix:

“You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again.”

uFlix added that while the problems were only reported by “a few users,” it expected that number to grow. After promising that it would take steps to ensure Netflix’s actions were short-lived, uFlix now reports it has implemented a “fix.”

This situation helps highlight the perennial problem content companies and streaming services face in blocking proxies, VPNs, and other “masking” services used to watch restricted content.

Netflix is now available more or less globally, in almost 200 countries, but the fragmented nature of global licensing means that TV shows and movies on Netflix vary from region to region. There are exceptions to this — for example, Netflix’s own slate of original shows are available universally. And the company is pushing content-owners to agree to global deals.

Last week, David Fullagar, vice president of content delivery architecture at Netflix, suggested that the VPN party would soon be over. “In [the] coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are,” he said.

It was an odd statement, one that went against what the company had previously said was even possible. But given the timing of the statement, it was likely made to appease rights-holders around the world, those who have a vested interest in keeping content siloed. Indeed, just a few days before Fullagar’s announcement, Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt said (emphasis ours):

We do apply industry standard technologies to limit the use of proxies. Since the goal of the proxy guys is to hide the source it’s not obvious how to make that work well. It’s likely to always be a cat-and-mouse game. [We] continue to rely on blacklists of VPN exit points maintained by companies that make it their job. Once [VPN providers] are on the blacklist, it’s trivial for them to move to a new IP address and evade.

This “cat-and-mouse” game is already evident in the case of uFlix. Netflix’s efforts to block content in Australia lasted only a matter of days before uFlix was able to roll out a “fix.” As Hunt noted, it’s relatively easy for masking services to shift to a different IP address once they’ve been blacklisted. Netflix’s efforts may cause some disruption to proxy services, and it may be able to block some VPN services that don’t specifically seek to allow users to watch geo-restricted content. But with so many VPN and unblocking services available, Netflix surely knows its actions are futile.

Netflix, ultimately, is caught between a rock and a hard place. The company has gone on record many times criticizing the way content licensing deals are negotiated globally. Of course, Netflix would love to be able offer a consistent library of content around the world. But it also has to stay on-side with those who hold the rights to the content, otherwise they may threaten to pull shows and movies altogether.

The result is that Netflix is going through the motions of blocking VPNs, even though it understands perfectly well that these measures are doomed to fail.

Source: uFlix [via Engadget]