04/03/2016 10:00 EDT | Updated 04/04/2017 01:12 EDT

Netflix cracks down on piracy, virtual border hopping amid global expansion

TORONTO — Canadian Netflix subscribers are the only ones who can't peek into the halls of "Degrassi: Next Class." Viewers in Africa and Turkey can't see how the prisoners at Litchfield penitentiary are faring in "Orange is the New Black."

It's not only Netflix's original content that is region-specific. Not all Netflix libraries were created equal due to international copyright and content licensing restrictions.

Some web-savvy folks have overcome those obstacles by streaming pirated content for free or using a virtual private network (VPN) service to trick Netflix into streaming the shows and movies available in another country, like the United States, which has the widest selection.

But it seems Netflix is tired of customers hopping over virtual borders to access content available to people in other countries and scofflaws streaming its original content free of charge.

The company is cracking down on piracy and digital border hopping amid a global expansion that only omits China, Syria and Crimea from accessing the streaming service.

Netflix has reportedly hired Vobile Inc., a company that helps firms protect their original content on the web, to tackle its piracy woes.

Over roughly the past four months, Vobile filed more than 350 takedown notices to Google, according to Lumen, a Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society project studying online content takedown requests. The notices ask Google to remove the suspected URLs from its search results.

These requests pinpointed more than 96,000 URLs, according to Google's transparency report, many of which host streams to Netflix's original shows and movies, like House of Cards and Making a Murderer. The requests mostly target content on the sites Uploaded and Vodlocker.

Vobile did not respond to request for comment. But both Lumen and Google connect Vobile to the copyright owner Netflix2.

The company also seems to have stepped up its efforts to prevent customers from using VPN services to hop across virtual borders.

In mid-January, Netflix said its practices against VPNs are evolving.

"That means in coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are," said David Fullagar, the company's vice-president of content delivery architecture, in a blog post about a week after Netflix announced it would be available in 130 more countries.

A Netflix spokesman said the company did not have any comment beyond Fullagar's post.

Netflix found an ally for this crackdown in PayPal, a digital payment company, when it recently decided to discontinue service to some of these VPN providers.

"PayPal does not permit the use of its service for transactions that infringe copyrights or other proprietary rights," according to a company statement. It continues to support VPN providers that do not market their services for unlawful purposes.

Since its announcement, it appears Netflix has thwarted the tactics of many VPN service providers, which have been scrambling to provide solutions to frustrated clients.

Unblock-us, for example, has been tweeting customers that its support team is "a few days behind" in troubleshooting Netflix errors since mid-March as users complain Netflix is blocking them from viewing content until they disable the proxy service.

Unblock-us did not respond to a request for comment.

Netflix has outsmarted most of these services, say frustrated former geo-blocking subverters on a subreddit dedicated to accessing Netflix by proxy.

The moderators for another Netflix subreddit have since banned discussion about VPN use after users raised concerns Netflix may peruse the threads to determine which services to target.

Some customers say they've cancelled their Netflix subscriptions if they can't use these services, while others are threatening to do so.

But the company appears committed to its cause while it works toward making the same TV shows and movies available to all its customers, regardless of their physical location.

"That's the goal we're pushing towards," Fullagar said.


Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press