Netflix crackdown on border hoppers could kill some unblocking companies, says expert

Since Netflix began its crackdown, the company has been fiercely targeting unblocking companies. As a result, some are struggling as they face the wrath of unhappy customers. A tech expert says the battle could put some unblocking companies out of business.
The Netflix crackdown could mean trouble for unblocking companies with unhappy customers. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

For the past year, Suzan Lorenz's family has enjoyed watching Neflix shows restricted to other countries.

Then in late January, something strange happened.

Her Netflix service began freezing up for several days at a time, replaced with an error message from the company.

"It seems to flare up every once in a while, like bad arthritis," says Lorenz who lives in Toronto. "It's really annoying."

Her children like to watch shows like CSI Miami that Netflix only makes available to U.S. customers. So Lorenz subscribes to an unblocking service to help her hop virtual borders.

Since Netflix began its crackdown on border hoppers in mid-January, unblocking companies have been a target.

Now it appears the streaming service may be winning the battle: some in the unblocking business are struggling, their customers constantly complaining they can no longer access Netflix. A number of users are even cancelling their unblocking subscriptions.

The end result could be dire for unblocking companies.

"I have a feeling some of them are going to disappear," says Patrick O'Rourke with the tech site MobileSyrup.

UnoTelly's Netflix woes

Unblocking services provide the technology for Netflix customers to watch shows in other countries. Due to region-exclusive content licensing agreements, the streaming service doesn't allow border hopping and is now cracking down.

On both Twitter and Facebook, numerous customers with the Toronto-based unblocking company UnoTelly are complaining they can no longer stream Netflix.

Some also claim they're pulling the plug on their UnoTelly accounts.

"Goodbye old friend, it's been real. Account cancelled," declared a customer on Twitter on Wednesday.

"I will be going elsewhere. Sad to see UnoTelly giving up on the fight and likely to be gone soon," posted another customer on the company's Facebook site.

In mid-January, when CBC News first asked UnoTelly its reaction to the Neflix crackdown, founder Nicholas Lin was defiant.

"UnoTelly is confident that we can continue to deliver quality service to our loyal and supportive users," he told CBC News in an email.

But now it appears the unblocking service could very well be giving up the fight.

Gone is the advertising on UnoTelly's website that claims clients can hop virtual borders. Instead, the company informs people that that border hopping "is not permitted."

When CBC asked Lin for an update, he responded, "Our hands are currently tied at the moment, so we are not able to comment."

He added, "We are working on some new developments relating [to] this issue."

Other unblocking companies are also struggling. The internet is brimming with complaints from customers of Barbados-based Unblock-Us, saying they can no longer access Netflix.

"Just cancelled @netflix and @Unblock_Us since I can't watch the content I've paid to watch," tweeted an unhappy customer last week.

"I'd like to find out how to get a refund please. Netflix is not working," posted another person on the Unblock-Us Facebook site.

The company responded to the customer that its support team was working on a solution. "Sorry, please bear with us, they have been pretty slammed lately, they are working as fast as they can."

Netflix crackdown on workarounds

It appears that even when companies find a technical solution Netflix finds ways to fight back.

Australian Unblocking site uFlix first declared in a blog that it had found a workaround for blocked Netflix customers on Jan. 22, then again on Feb. 5 after experiencing further disruptions.

Then on March 4, the company admitted it still wasn't in the clear. "Netflix has taken extremely aggressive measures to prevent people from bypassing their region," stated uFlix. "The measures taken are extremely difficult to get around and very expensive to do."

Days later, the company announced a new technical solution that will be rolled out in stages and requires that clients reconfigure their service.

Tech analyst O'Rourke says customers will be unhappy if they constantly have to reset their unblocking service to watch Netflix.

"Before, it was a very simple process where you put in a few numbers … and you're able to easily switch regions with the click of a button," he says.  

Now, he explains, with every workaround, customers have to do the legwork. "You have to go into your router and change things around, things the average person probably isn't going to be interested in doing."

That inconvenience, says O'Rouke, could drive customers away.

UFlix told CBC News it had no comment at this time.

Who will be left?

Toronto customer Lorenz says she has got her Netflix service working again — for now.

She plans to continue using an unblocking company, believing she should be able to access Netflix in any country.

"That's just ridiculous," Lorenz says about the crackdown. "If I'm paying Netflix, what does it matter?"

She subscribes to Unblock-Us. But if she experiences more service disruptions, Lorenz says, she may shop around for a different provider.

While some unblocking services appear to be facing the wrath of Netflix, others have been spared.

Panama-based NordVPN says it has only experienced some minor disruptions.  

"As of now, Netflix still works with NordVPN with no major issues," said spokeswoman Raminta Lilaite in an email to CBC News.

But for unblocking companies on Netflix's hit list, O'Rouke says it will continue to be a "game of cat and mouse," one that could cost some unblockers their business if enough customers find the game too irritating.

Netflix refused to comment on this story, telling CBC News, "We do not have anything else to add."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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