Netflix cross-border streaming: Experts doubt company can 'stamp it out completely'

​Netflix announced this week it will crack down on virtual border hoppers watching programs restricted to other countries. This time, experts say, the video streaming service means serious business. But there's also doubts the clamp down will actually work.

Netflix says it plans on cracking down on cross-border watching in the coming weeks

Netflix says it is targeting subscribers using technology to watch programs not available in their own country. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Netflix announced this week it will crack down on virtual border hoppers watching programs restricted to other countries. And this time, say experts, the video streaming service means business.

"I think they're more serious now than they ever have been," says Daniel Bader, technology analyst with the mobile tech site, MobileSyrup.

But don't start hyperventilating just yet if you're using technology to sneak across cyber borders to watch a show like Sons of Anarchy on Netflix U.S. — one of the many shows not available to Canadian subscribers.

Some experts doubt Netflix can completely stamp out cross-border watching.

"There's always ways around geoblocking," says Toronto consumer expert Kaan Yigit, referring to Netflix's use of virtual walls to keep viewers in their own country. 

Cross-border watching craze

As with many streaming companies, Netflix blocks customers from accessing programs in other regions because content licensing agreements vary between countries.

The company has repeatedly claimed it polices cross-border watching. "We employ industry standard measures to prevent this kind of use," Netflix told CBC News in an email twice last year.

But customers continue to circumvent the company's geoblocks with ease by using technology to virtually relocate themselves. There are even unblocking services that, for a monthly fee, enable Netflix subscribers to cross virtual borders.

Rampant cross-border viewing has been a bone of contention for content providers, which only grant Netflix the rights to stream certain programs in specified regions.

According to Sony Pictures internal emails from 2013 posted by WikiLeaks, company executives complained that Netflix wasn't doing enough to stop abusers. One suggested the company "semi-sanctioned" border hopping, because it led to more Netflix subscribers.

Pleasing the content creators

Bader believes now that Netflix has just launched in 130 more countries, it announced the crackdown to show a commitment to keeping viewers inside their borders. 

"They are doing a lot of this to placate the rights holders," he says.

The company now offers its services in 190 countries. Yigit says as the streaming service grows so does the mounting pressure from companies providing the programs. 

"Obviously there's some hesitation among some rights holders to license to Netflix so they're trying to be a good corporate citizen," says Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, a Toronto consumer research company.

But news about the crackdown doesn't concern Toronto Netflix customer Suzan Lorenz. She also subscribes to an unblocking service so she can hop borders.

"I don't think it's a huge threat," she says about the clampdown. "It's not something that I'm lying awake at night going, 'Oh my God, Netflix.'"

She doesn't believe the company has the ability to wipe out cross-border watching. "I'm not technologically savvy, but I can't imagine how they would be able to do that," she says.

Experts also question Netflix's ability to police the problem. "I doubt they could stamp it out completely," says Yigit.

New ways to whack a mole?

In the past, Netflix admitted detecting cross-border watchers was a challenge, likening it to "playing a game of whack-a-mole."

But the company's vice-president of content, David Fullagar, stated in a blog post this week that the technology to crackdown on abusers "continues to evolve and we will evolve with it." He also promised action in the coming weeks.

When asked for more details about the plan to put an end to cross-border watching, the company told CBC News in an email, "Netflix uses a variety of technologies to properly geolocate members and to avoid attempts to circumvent proper geolocation." It refused to provide details.

Bader says the only foolproof way Netflix could eliminate border hopping would be to lock people in the country where they got the credit card used to pay for the service. But he says that won't happen because the streaming service allows customers to watch their country's content when travelling in other regions.

"Essentially they are hamstrung by their own open policies when it comes to cross-border content access," he says.

Bader believes that without credit card checks, unless Netflix has amazing new technology up its sleeve, it will be difficult to stop unblocking services. That's because, he says, they'll always be looking for ways to circumvent whatever measures Netflix puts in place.

Toronto-based unblocking service UnoTelly is already claiming that despite the crackdown, it will remain in business. "UnoTelly is confident that we can continue deliver quality service to our loyal and supportive users," said founder Nicholas Lin in an email.

What everyone — from Netflix to experts —  can agree on is that the day will come when cross-border watching won't be such a hot issue. Netflix is continually increasing its offerings in individual countries and adding more original programs. Plus, it's working on providing more global access to shows, which the company admits would be the ultimate solution.

"If all of our content were globally available, there wouldn't be a reason for members … to fool our systems into thinking they're in a different country than they're actually in," said Netflix's Fullager in his post.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: