x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Subscribers fear loss of access to Netflix

One popular VPN provider, TorGuard, says its customers are having problems accessing Netflix. Some analysts believe the broadcaster is coming under pressure from content copyright owners to block VPNs.

ABU DHABI // Viewers of the web-based entertainment broadcaster Netflix are worried their access to the service might be blocked.

Netflix is not available in the UAE, but users with a European or American subscription can watch it with a VPN, or virtual private network, which disguises their computer’s location.

One popular VPN provider, TorGuard, says its customers are having problems accessing Netflix. Some analysts believe the broadcaster is coming under pressure from content copyright owners to block VPNs.

Disguising a computer’s location breaches Netflix’s terms of service, but the company denies any new enforcement action against VPNs.

Operating a VPN is not in itself illegal in the UAE, but using it to access banned content could be against the law.

Netflix has nearly 13 million subscribers in almost 50 countries, mostly in Europe and America, who each pay about $8 a month or the equivalent in their own currency. Some subscribers in Europe use a VPN to watch US content.

As Netflix increases its international profile, it may seek to turn VPN users into legitimately paying customers of localised services, said Tony Gunnarsson, an analyst for Ovum, a UK consultancy with offices in the UAE.

However, he did not expect it to expand to the Middle East for five to 10 years. In the meantime, Mr Gunnarsson said, using a VPN to access services such as Netflix was a “big grey zone”.

Michael Chu, 36, a Canadian in Dubai, said that if he could no longer access Netflix in the UAE there would be no point in continuing to subscribe. He also thought blocking Netflix would force more people to download or stream pirated content.

“You can get most of your content through Netflix so you don’t have to go the piracy route. I think the piracy route is just a matter of convenience and cost,” he said.

He said it would only be an inconvenience if there were a further crackdown on VPN users, but the laws should start “loosening up”.

“If you’re paying for content, I think you should get the content you’re looking for.”

Mouza Al Mehairi, 25, an Emirati travel officer, said Netflix had not been working for her for the past few days, and the site displayed a message that the content was not available.

“To be honest, Netflix has been saving me a lot of time and effort – getting TV episodes and stuff – and I’ve been using it non-stop for like a month now,” she said. “So of course it worries me.”

She uses it to re-watch old shows that have ended, such as Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another Dubai UAE resident, who watches movies and TV shows using AppleTV and Netflix via VPN without problems, said: “It will be interesting to see how far VPN providers will go in setting up workarounds for their customers and effectively going to war with digital entertainment services.

“Media outlets should go global with their services in a digital capacity, like what HBO is doing with HBOGo, but that’s only within the US.

“But with increased access, piracy will increase too, I am sure. It is a delicate balance to maintain.”

Mr Gunnarsson believes the expansion of legitimate media services such as Netflix has “largely eaten into what was previously a pirate market”.

“Ten years ago, it was easier to steal something than pay for it,” he said.

But that is now less often the case. Consumers can sign up for good services without going through the hassle of stealing content.

Mr Gunnarsson said that while piracy may always be an issue, perhaps as a complement to paid services, legitimate options obscured piracy. He expected those services to continue to expand internationally.

lcarroll@thenational.ae