Sunday, 5 April 2015

General: Netflix

Netflix has become a household name as the world's largest streaming movie service. For many people it's become a reason to stop buying films on DVD or Blu-ray, because they can watch unlimited films every month for a small monthly subscription. It's optimistically referred to as the future of film entertainment, and the death of physical copies of films. That's foolish. Every serious film fan who has tried Netflix knows that the film selection is very limited. That became painfully obvious to me when I decided to watch a few of Anita Ekberg's films after her death. Of the 53 films that she made during her career not one was available on Netflix. It seems that Netflix appeals to the lowest common denominator, presenting the films that most people want to watch and ignoring the films that customers with niche tastes might like. As long as this is the case DVD's and Blu-ray Discs will never become obsolete.

What many people don't realise is that the film selection offered by Netflix differs from country to country. For instance, Netflix in the UK has far less films than Netflix in the USA. Netflix in Germany, which only began last year, has an even smaller selection. The reason for this is that Netflix licenses the films separately in each country. Different companies distribute films in each country, so Netflix has to pay royalties to different local companies. If, in the worst possible case, a film has never found a distributor in the UK it won't be shown on Netflix UK at all.

Many Netflix customers in the UK are dissatisfied with the number of films they can watch and want to access the American version of Netflix. This isn't possible, because on logging in to Netflix the web site recognises the customer's location and gives him his own country's film selection. Luckily there are ways for Internet users to fake their location. The most common method is the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which downloads data from Netflix in one country, then streams it to users in another country. This has been done for years without Netflix making any attempts to prevent it, but it became an issue when Netflix began operating in Australia. The Australian film distribution companies complained about Australian Netflix customers "illegally" watching their films on the American site before they had reached licensing agreements with Netflix in Australia. Supposedly it is easy to recognise and block VPN access, but Netflix said they wouldn't do it.

Ever since I became a Netflix customer last year I've been using a VPN provided by the Hola Unblocker to access Netflix USA. It was useful to me for watching films starring Jayne Heitmeyer, but at the beginning of this year I was only using Netflix USA to watch the television series "NYC 22". In January 2015 Netflix stated that they would never block VPN access, but in February I was no longer able to access Netflix USA, while I still had two episodes of the series left to watch. There was no official statement from Netflix. Then, two days ago, I was suddenly allowed into Netflix USA's site again. I don't know what the reason is for this stopping and starting, but I quickly watched the two remaining episodes of "NYC 22" before I was blocked again.

My opinion is that country-specific film offers on the Internet are an anachronism. The Internet is an international medium and should be treated that way. There is a word for blocking information in one country that is available in another country: censorship. Whatever the excuse, Internet censorship is wrong. For now Internet users should use software tools to bypass censorship, but this isn't enough. Governments should condemn censorship and outlaw it in their respective countries.

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