·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


Is It Illegal to Stream on Netflix with a VPN?

— October 30, 2020

The bottom line is that if caught using a VPN Netflix will block you from accessing their content and display an error, but you won’t get into any legal hassles.

When did you last grab some popcorn and watch a movie in the cinema? How about the last time you streamed a TV show/movie on Netflix? Even if you aren’t a binge-watcher, you’ve probably done the latter more often. That is exactly how Netflix has changed the entertainment industry.

The Video-on-Demand (VoD) service grows its subscribers by around 10% yearly. As of 2020, it has more than 65 million subscribers in the U.S. alone, and secures the most number of Academy Award nominations, defeating the likes of Disney, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros!

All of this goes to show that “The Netflix Effect” is real, as its impact can be felt in a number of industries. Even an unknown actor and producer has the capability of gaining overnight fame, due to millions binge-watching a show. This raises a very important question for region-hoppers…

“Is it illegal to stream on Netflix with a VPN?” Well, it isn’t uncommon for people to use an unblocker for accessing different content libraries, particularly that of American Netflix. To learn where you stand legally when engaging in region-hopping for Netflix, continue reading!

Will You Get In Trouble for Using a VPN with Netflix?

Since VPNs are privacy tools, people leave them on all the time when browsing. Therefore, if you use one with Netflix, legally, there are no implications. Bear in mind that using a VPN for unblocking different content libraries is not a form of “piracy” or torrenting “copyrighted” material. 

One can say that region-hopping is not illegal, but generally “discouraged”. This is because it is against their terms of service. As such, Netflix does indeed have the right of cutting access to streams at any point, upon detecting a VPN. For more clarification, here are some relevant snippets from their “Terms of Use”:

Netflix ToS 4.3

“You may view Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content. The content that may be available to watch will vary by geographic location and will change from time to time.”

Netflix ToS 4.6

“You also agree not to circumvent, remove, alter, deactivate, degrade or thwart any of the content protections in the Netflix service; use any robot, spider, scraper or other automated means to access the Netflix service… We may terminate or restrict your use of our service if you violate these Terms of Use or are engaged in illegal or fraudulent use of the service.”

If you’ve read both sections of the ToS above, you’ll learn that Netflix does state it will “terminate or restrict” your use of their service, if you are found using a VPN. However, Netflix has never banned or blocked any account for using an unblocker and neither does it show any interest to do so! 

What Happens If You Are Caught Using a VPN?

If Netflix detects that you are using a VPN service, it will instantly display an error message something along the lines of “You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again”. Therefore, if you disconnect the VPN and open Netflix, you will regain full access!

As such, you don’t have worry about Netflix punishing you in any way for trying bypass geo-restrictions. Your account will not be suspended or blocked. The maximum that can happen is you being unable to stream any title, until and unless you disable the unblocker/proxy service. 

Netflix error message; image courtesy of author.
Netflix error message; image courtesy of author.

Why Does Netflix Discourage VPN Usage?

Distributors partnered with Netflix lose money when users shift regions to watch a particular movie/TV show. You see, the VoD doesn’t own all the content on its platform. It has to adhere to certain stipulations put forward by the production houses, which often include geographical restrictions.

Think of it this way that Netflix offers two types of content: Original and Licensed. The former is Netflix’s own intellectual property. This means, they have complete control over what is available in which country. Initially, this wasn’t the case and Netflix originals were not available in all countries.

Rights to shows like “Orange is the New Black”, “The Walking Dead”, and “The West Wing” were sold to third party networks in Indonesia, Tanzania, and other countries. Now, all Netflix Originals are available to customers worldwide. Whereas, licensed content from the VoD is always geo-restricted.

This is because of the simple fact that the content is licensed from third party creators, who maintain complete ownership of their intellectual property. These licenses are what prevent Netflix from displaying its complete library; otherwise, the VoD actually prefers providing global access to its content!

How Does Netflix Detect VPN Services?

Netflix set the stage for an aggressive fight against region-hopping through DNS, proxies, and VPN services, after they started receiving complaints from production houses and distributors to ramp up their measures to block users from accessing geographically-restricted content. 

This led to the creation of what is possibly the best VPN detection system outside “The Great Firewall”. Netflix does so by maintaining a blacklist of IP addresses that belong to VPN providers, along with employing techniques like DNS poisoning, DNS hijacking, DNS/IP filtering, and Blackholing of VPN servers. 

However, most VPNs are aware of these tactics and figured out a way to circumvent the VPN ban. They do so by utilizing “Obfuscation” technology, which transforms VPN traffic into regular HTTPs traffic. So, you can say the fight between VPNs and streaming platforms like Netflix continues to this date!

Wrapping Things Up

The bottom line is that if caught using a VPN Netflix will block you from accessing their content and display an error, but you won’t get into any legal hassles. You don’t have to worry about your account getting cancelled. Just make sure that if you are using a VPN to bypass geo-restrictions on the streaming platform, you pick one that is reliable, fast, and trustworthy!

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