In any conversation about Netflix, someone inevitably says the following: “It’s better in the U.S.”
For the most part, they’re right. Since my recent column offering tips on how to find content on the site, several readers noted the disparity in Netflix offerings in the U.S., where Netflix got its start, and Canada, which was the first country outside the States Netflix expanded to.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the U.S. version has by various estimates five to 10 times the titles the Canadian version offers. It has more recent movies and definitely more U.S. television.
Why is that? Let’s bust a myth: it has nothing to do with the CRTC, which does not regulate Internet content as it does television and radio programming. But it has everything to do with Canada being a separate market to which TV and film producers, who are largely American, sell separately in the quest for additional revenue beyond what they’ve received for selling their content in the U.S.
If Netflix doesn’t offer an American TV show in Canada, it’s because it hasn’t yet, or can’t, purchase that show’s Canadian online broadcast rights. Negotiating those rights takes time and money, and sometimes it likely doesn’t make good business sense in the case of individual shows.
A more limited Netflix experience in Canada doesn’t bother me. At $7.99 a month, it’s a still a good deal. It’s also the price of being a sovereign country with better healthcare.
But if you want U.S. Netflix, simply travel to America. If you drive with your laptop to Bellingham, connect to wifi at a Starbucks there and fire up Netflix with your Canadian subscription, you will suddenly find yourself looking at the American version.
This is by design: as a benefit to travellers, Netflix allows its subscribers to use their home subscription credentials in any of the markets in which it operates and receive the local version of Netflix.
Once this travel feature was discovered, it didn’t take long before geekier subscribers outside of the U.S. began using VPNs to virtually travel to the USA.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is often described as a private “tunnel” to the Internet that sets up a secure connection between your computer or device and another computer or server in a separate location.
Businesses use VPNs to allow employees on the road or working at home to connect securely with corporate servers. Commercial services offer VPNs to private individuals who want an extra layer of security while online, especially at public wifi hotspots. People in countries like China, where the Internet is heavily censored, use VPNs to access government-blocked sites like Twitter or foreign news. And since commercial VPNs usually offer server connections all over the world, online media geeks use VPNs to connect to servers in the U.S. so that, as far as the Internet is concerned, they are “travelling” in America and can happily watch The Vampire Diaries.
Commercial VPNs popular among Canadians include Witopia, StrongVPN and Unblockus, which is not really a VPN but provides similar access to foreign sites. Most offer monthly or annual subscriptions with yearly prices roughly $50 and up.
As with anything geeky, mileage varies. None of these services are particularly user friendly, but some do provide dedicated apps to simply your experience. The Witopia app for Windows, for example, gives users a relatively easy method of connecting with servers around the world, from Seattle to Stockholm.
Is it legal? I’m no lawyer, but I can’t see that it’s not. Does Netflix wink at this activity? It must. Its engineers are not stupid and online forums are full of information about how to do this. But because of the additional cost and relative complexity involved with VPNs, Netflix likely recognizes that the number of people who are border jumping this way is a tiny fraction of its subscriber base.
To thwart VPNs would only alienate its most dedicated fans in geekdom, which — because it is both vocal and influential with mainstream consumers — you provoke at your peril.
Next column: Reader questions, including reader suggestions for Netflix