Australians have had access to a local Netflix service for years now, so is it time to finally ditch your VPN and go straight?
It's been more than three years since Netflix launched Down Under. In that time, the library of movies and TV shows available to Aussie subscribers has grown at a spectacular rate, increasing from about 1,000 titles to more than 4,000 at the time of writing.
It's not simply a case of quantity over quality, either. Plenty of blockbuster titles like Star Wars: Rogue One, Annihilation, Wonder Woman and Star Trek: Discovery have joined the catalogue along with Netflix's own critically-acclaimed original series.
This constant growth has kept Netflix ahead of rivals like Stan and Foxtel Now, but there's one competitor that still poses a threat: Netflix itself. More specifically, the US version of the service that Australians aren't supposed to have access to.
Of course, just because it's taboo doesn't mean people won't watch it anyway. According to a 2014 CHOICE report, approximately 340,000 Aussie households were accessing the US version of Netflix prior to the service's Australian launch, using VPNs (virtual private networks) to circumvent Netflix's geographical restrictions.
For those unfamiliar with VPNs, they essentially disguise your computer's network traffic and identifying information to hide it from the rest of the Internet. This can be leveraged to trick websites and other online services into thinking you're accessing them from a country that's different than where you actually are.
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While using a VPN to access US content has always been against Netflix's terms of service, the company didn't seem too bothered by it prior to launching in Australia. However, once a legitimate means of accessing the service was available here, Netflix began cracking down on this unauthorised subversion of its region restrictions, banning the IP addresses of the servers that popular VPNs used to facilitate international access.
VPN providers eventually got around this by renting new servers or acquiring new IP addresses. That only led to a back-and-forth with Netflix that left many VPN users booted from a movie or TV show just as it was getting to the good part.
This leads us to the $9.99 question: Is it worth keeping (or signing up to) Netflix US now that Netflix Australia is in full bloom? To answer this, there are a few key factors we need to consider.
In a nutshell, most VPNs trick Netflix into thinking you're accessing it from another location by routing incoming and outgoing network traffic through a server actually located there. This means that the movie or TV show you're streaming has to travel first to that server then to your computer, reducing the effective speed with which you're accessing Netflix content. Depending on the speed of both your Internet connection and the server's, this may cause Netflix to buffer more regularly or even drop video quality down to compensate.
As mentioned above, Netflix is constantly banning more VPN server IP addresses, and there's no way of knowing if or when your VPN might get hit. It could be right as you're watching the climactic battle of the latest superhero flick, leaving you to stare at an error screen and wonder how the fight panned out (spoiler: the good guys probably won).
Sometimes, getting around these IP bans might only require a couple of minutes of fiddling with VPN settings, but other times you could be blocked out for weeks with no guarantee that your VPN will address the issue.
A VPN is something of a contradiction in itself. Pitched as a tool for shoring up your security while browsing the web, VPNs inherently introduce a security weakness of their own in the fact that all your network traffic must pass through a VPN provider's network. Most providers claim that they don't store any of this data and so you don't have to worry about privacy breaches or stolen information, but you only have their word to go on. By using a VPN, you're putting a whole lot of trust in its provider, and there's always a chance that could come back and bite you in the rear down the track.
Accessing the US Netflix library from Australia isn't cheap. Along with the Netflix subscription itself, you need to pay for a VPN service, too, potentially doubling your overall monthly cost compared to a regular Australian Netflix subscription. Sure, there are cheaper VPNs out there, but following on from the section above, a cut-price VPN might not be as secure as a more expensive one, increasing the possibility of your personal data ending up in the hands of those willing to use it against you.
Since the use of a VPN to access content from other regions is against its terms of service, Netflix would be well within its rights if it decided to start banning individual accounts as well as IP addresses. While it hasn't gone down this route as yet – at least, not on a large-scale basis – there's always the possibility that management will decide enough is enough and begin locking accounts from accessing any Netflix content, regardless of region. Bear that in mind if you plan to continue bypassing Netflix's geo-blocks.
So, should you keep Netflix US?
Three years ago, it was significantly easier to make the case for side-stepping Netflix's region restrictions. The gulf between the US and Australian Netflix libraries was vast, and the costs associated with using a VPN were minimal. Now, however, the content gap has shrunk dramatically, Netflix has clamped down on VPN providers and Australians are more aware than ever of the risks involved with putting your personal data in the hands of third parties. In our opinion, there's little reason to keep jumping through hoops to access Netflix US when the Australian service is as good as it is.
Of course, that decision is ultimately up to you. If you're still undecided, you might want to check out our comparison of the Netflix Australia and Netflix US TV show libraries.