Netflix geoblocking in Canada 'a game of whack-a-mole'

If you're among the estimated 1.92 million Canadians who may be illegally streaming TV shows meant solely for the U.S. Netflix market, rest easy. For the most part, your stealth viewing tactics should allow you to stream on, experts say.

One-third of anglophone Canadians may be accessing U.S. Netflix, poll says

Netflix founder and Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings speaks during an industry event in 2011. The video-streaming service has reiterated its geoblocking policies but denied reports it has begun to crack down on services that allow users to trick its system. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

Looking for Louie? Seeking more Scandal? If you're among the estimated 1.92 million Canadians who may be illegally streaming TV shows meant solely for the U.S. Netflix market, rest easy.

For the most part, your stealth viewing tactics should allow you to stream on.

Amid reports that Netflix was cracking down on online proxy services that allow foreign-based viewers to vault geofences, even the streaming company admits that trying to block virtual private networks (VPN) is next to impossible.

"Detecting VPN usage is like playing a game of whack-a-mole," says Netflix spokesman Cliff Edwards. "By their very nature, it's difficult to tell how many people are bypassing geofilters."

A Media Technology Monitor poll of 2,002 anglophone Canadians found that 32 per cent subscribe to Netflix. Of those respondents, one-third said they had figured out how to use VPN, domain-name hosting (DNS) or proxy services, which can fake their locations in order to make them appear as if they are accessing web content from another country.

"When you do the numbers, that's 10 percent of all anglophone Canadians affected by this," said David Christopher, a spokesperson for, which champions open internet policies.

The numbers appear less dramatic when tallied by household rather than individual user, however.

Rivals in CraveTV and Shomi

"Given there are nearly 11.5 million internet households in Canada, [Canadian households streaming U.S. Netflix] represents only six per cent of the total," said Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based Solutions Research Group, citing data from December.

"Clearly it's an annoyance for Netflix and rights holders, but it's a single-digit number when you look at the market overall."

TV series such as FX's Louie, left, and ABC's Scandal, are among the streaming offerings that American Netflix subscribers have access to. An estimated one-third of Canadian anglophone Netflix users use web trickery to view titles meant only for the U.S. market. (Associated Press, FX, KC Baile, ABC, Eric McCandless)

Netflix spokesman Edwards said the company has "done nothing new recently to block VPNs," despite reports the streaming service was cracking down on online tools that trick the system.

Foreign users in recent days have nevertheless complained they were unable to view American titles using their usual IP-cloaking methods.

OpenMedia's Christopher said it's understandable why people would turn to such measures to watch their favourite programming.

"The content on the Canadian Netflix side doesn't offer the level of choice you get on American Netflix, and that's largely the result of this very restrictive, highly concentrated media structure in Canada," Christopher said. "Obtaining licenses in this system is a problem."

Netflix has some emerging Canadian players to contend with in the streaming space as well — namely, Bell's CraveTV and Rogers' and Shaw's Shomi.

It's doubtful that these rival Canadian video-streaming services would get a viewership boost from a possible Netflix crackdown on VPN, however.

Diane Wild, a vocal CanCon proponent who also publishes TV, Eh?, a blog promoting Canadian television, noted that neither Shomi nor CraveTV would be competition for Netflix because both services are limited to the Rogers, Bell or Shaw subscriber bases, anyway.

"For Netflix, the reasons for not having much in the Canadian library probably isn't because they don't want it," she said. "It's because within the price point they want to keep, they probably couldn't afford to pursue that stuff."

'Explosion in VPN providers'

Wild was recently able to access American Netflix titles from B.C. Even if it were blocked, though, she said she doesn't imagine it would be difficult for someone more tech-savvy to find a workaround.

"It just seems there's always going to be a new technological way to get around geoblocking from those people who want to invest their time in it," Wild said.

Ottawa cybersecurity expert Rafal Rohozinski believes she is probably right.

"VPNs are becoming so much more common than a few years ago," said Rohozinski, CEO of the cyber-research think tank SecDev Group. "There's been an explosion in VPN providers."

Rohozinski likens Netflix’s geo-fencing problems to the "wild west" days of illegal mp3 file-sharing during the 1990s and early 2000s.

"It’s like what we had before iTunes came along. We had tons of mp3 sharing sites," he said. "It wasn’t until iTunes came up with a proper business model that it became easy to do it in a legal kind of way."

While Rohozinski forecasts "short-term pain" from some potential blocking of VPN servers, he expects it to be "the start to something new."

"They’re also setting the basis for a new industry to come into being, like iTunes did," he said. 

One answer could lie with the Toronto-based circumvention system Psiphon, described by a company exec as a "freedom of information tool" that allows web surfers from heavily censored nations such as Iran and China to bypass state firewalls and access online content.

Broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America use Psiphon, which is free, to bring their content into places where their reportage might be routinely blocked.

Karl Kathuria, CEO at Psiphon, said that if Netflix or other entertainment companies wanted help in managing legitimate distribution of content, his company would happily help.

"However, this won’t solve the problem of people finding ways of breaking geographical boundaries to get to content they feel entitled to consume," he said. "The entertainment industry needs to address that, or adjust their distribution models to account for the internet being a global platform."

As for why Netflix may have decided now to deliver a tougher tone, Kathuria speculated that a leaked Sony email criticizing Netflix’s lax response to VPNs as "semi-sanctioned" piracy might offer some clues.

"The situation here is that it’s likely the movie studios and content providers will want to enforce geo-boundaries for commercial reasons," he said.

"It’s up to Netflix to decide whether or not they want to meet this."