A Canadian internet advocacy group is fighting back against Netflix's recent crackdown on cross-border watchers.

Vancouver-based Open Media argues the clampdown unfairly targets people who value their privacy online.

In mid-January, Netflix began cracking down on customers hopping virtual borders to watch shows and films restricted to other countries, especially in the U.S., which offers a rich content library.

Netflix's plan of attack was to block access to anyone using a VPN or virtual private network, software that can be used to disguise one's physical location.

Open Media claims the move unjustly punishes people who use VPNs not to border hop but to protect their identity online for privacy reasons.

The organization has posted an online petition protesting the VPN crackdown and has already collected close to 45,000 signatures.

And today it's sending a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, chastising the company for targeting VPN users. It's also demanding a meeting to discuss better ways to tackle the thorny issue of regionally licensed content. 

"You just haven't been treating us well," states the letter.

'We're not insignificant'

"We love Netflix but we don't think that they need to be undercutting our privacy in order for us to access it," says Open Media's Laura Tribe, who penned the letter to Netflix on behalf of her organization.

The letter takes particular issue with Hastings, who, during Netflix's recent earnings call, called customers affected by the crackdown "a very small but quite vocal minority."

The CEO added that they were "inconsequential" to the company.

"That's offensive to hear. That really feels like my rights and my needs are being disrespected," says Tribe, who serves as Open Media's digital rights specialist.

Her letter warns Hastings, "We're not small and we're not insignificant."

VPNs to protect privacy

Tribe explains that many people use VPNs to protect themselves in an era where personal information can be compromised in cyberspace.

"The thing with storing so much of our personal information online is that we just can't know who is looking at our personal details, or when," she says.

Tribe adds that using a VPN is just one way people "can take back some of that control and keep our information safer."

But since Netflix began its crackdown, VPN users have found their Netflix access blocked — even if they're simply watching shows only offered in their own country.

Netflix crackdown

When VPN users try to access Netflix — even in their own country — they're often met with this error message. (Allana Mayer)

Tribe says the company recently started blocking her from watching legitimate Canadian content she's paying for — just because she chooses to use a VPN for privacy reasons.

When she called Netflix to complain, Tribe says, she was told to stop using a VPN or cancel Netflix.

She's considering cancelling the streaming service because she now barely uses it, knowing she can't watch Netflix and protect her privacy at the same time.

An 'absurd hoop to jump through'

A couple of months ago, Netflix customer Myron Groover also lost his Netflix service when trying to watch Canadian content using his VPN.

"This is me legally VPNing in my own jurisdiction, not breaking any rules, not even bending any rules," says Groover, who lives in Hamilton.  

The university librarian says that using a VPN when online is important to him. "It's farcical to suggest that you can't expect privacy on a paid service."

To deal with the problem, Groover says he watches Netflix without using a VPN, but only on one computer that he doesn't use for any other online activity.

"That's an absurd hoop to jump through for somebody like myself who's quite privacy conscious," argues Groover.

He adds that he's also considering cancelling his Netflix subscription.

Netflix VPN Myron Groover

Myron Groover in Hamilton gets an error message when he uses a VPN to watch Netflix shows in Canada. (Allana Mayer)

Let's talk

Open Media's letter invites the Netflix CEO to meet with the organization to discuss better approaches to its crackdown.

Tribe says she understands that Netflix has contractual obligations to content rights holders.

But she contends that instead of targeting VPN users, Netflix should instead target Hollywood studios that demand regionally restrictive licensing deals.

"We think there's also a role for Netflix to play in pushing back their rights holders," she says.

Netflix won't talk

Netflix refused to comment to CBC News on this story, referring us to a January company blog that stated it "will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location."

CBC News asked the company for comment on the fact it's blocking VPN users from watching content in their own country.

"We do not have any additional comment to provide," the California-based streaming service replied in an email.

Both Netflix and Open Media agree the ultimate solution is a world where all content is globally licensed. But Netflix admits it has "a ways to go" before that will happen.

In the meantime, VPN users who guard their privacy do not appear to be a concern for the streaming service.

So Open Media says it will continue its campaign. The organization claims it's planning further action in the hopes of eventually getting the company's attention.

"We think it's important for Netflix to know that this is something that we take very seriously," says Tribe.