Early this year, a reddit post revealed that Netflix has been cracking down on Smart DNS services.
Netflix recently rolled out the latest 3.7.2 version on Android. What appeared to be an innocuous update that fixed bugs and added new features also included a hardcode within the app that initially performs a Google DNS lookup. What this does is determine whether Netflix subscribers are using a DNS masking tool or Smart DNS to run the app.
If found to be using either, the code will block subscribers from accessing the site.
What is Smart DNS and why is it banned?
Unlike DNS (domain name system) that converts user-friendly URLs into IP addresses, Smart DNS and DNS masking tools forego the change from URL to IP address to provide users with unblocked access to encrypted sites at uncompromised load times.
What Smart DNS did prior to the Netflix update is "trick" the site by thinking that the subscriber is located in the US (based on where the Smart DNS server is located) even though they can be anywhere around the world.
One of the possible reasons why Netflix banned the use of Smart DNS is due to Australians getting access to Netflix content. Meant to be exclusive to select countries, Netflix has been accessed by 200,000 Australians through the use of a VPN. Pressure from content providers has forced Netflix to hardcode the Google DNS lookup.
On a separate occasion, a leaked angry email from Sony Pictures accuses Netflix of "semi-sanctioning piracy" due to its inability to block VPNs.
Who wins and who loses in blocking VPNs to access Netflix?
While blocking Smart DNS access to Netflix may benefit production studios by keeping their content premium to specific locations, the biggest losers are US citizen subscribers stationed in different countries where Netflix is blocked. Even if they were subscribed to Netflix before, their subscription is good as useless if they cannot access the site even with a Smart DNS.
Netflix finds itself in a difficult position as well. The app update which included the hardcored Google DNS lookup is a way to appease content providers with the knowledge of disillusioning their non-US subscribers.
Despite it all, there is a silver lining in this Smart DNS blocking saga.
In an article at BBC, Netflix's chief product officer Neil Hunt claims that the service provider has changed its policy on VPN and Smart DNS. "People who are using a VPN to access our service from outside of the area will find that it still works exactly as it has always done," says Hunt.
However, Hunt did confirm that Netflix blocked unreliable Smart DNS and VPN services or countries working with specific deals with networks and productions. "The reality is we blacklist known VPNs in accordance with our content contracts - Foxtel, for example, owns House of Cards in Australia so they kind of like us to block them. But we are not changing our policy. It remains the same as it ever was."
Final thoughts: Netflix is fully aware of their actions and the effects to their consumers and production studios. It is therefore very careful and deliberate in how their content is delivered to its subscribers, all while observing the restrictions set against them by content providers.
As a subscriber, instead of looking for another service (which is impossible since no other site delivers the same seamless experience at the moment like Netflix), there are VPNs and Smart DNS that lets you access Netflix regardless of location.
The bigger questions remains to be answered: will other premium streaming sites follow Netflix's lead by banning certain VPN clients? If the reason is to keep subscribers safe from using unreputable VPNs, then they should. But if the reason is to deprive users from viewing the premium shows using their service and potentially drive away their subscribers, then the risk is theirs to take.