Why (how) do streaming services block VPNs

If you’ve been trying to access geo-blocked streaming services, you’ll most probably have thought about using a virtual private network (VPN).

VPNs are becoming more and more popular, and due to this popularity, they’re becoming more and more reliable when unlocking content that isn’t available in your location.

But while VPNs are a very good option for accessing restricted content, you may find that some VPNs don’t work with particular streaming services.

This is happening because services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, MAX, FuboTV and more, are continuously enhancing and developing their VPN detection systems to prevent VPNs from connecting to their platforms.

You may be wondering why (how) do streaming services block VPNs? And there’s more than one answer. This article will explain why streaming services block VPNs so you can get a better understanding of why your VPN might not be working with geo-blocked streaming services.

Why do streaming services block VPNS?

Streaming services block VPNs primarily to enforce content licensing agreements and regional restrictions. By doing so, they ensure they’re not violating the terms set by content producers and rights holders, who often grant distribution rights based on specific geographic regions.

But this isn’t the only reason why streaming services block VPNs. There’s a number of reasons for it, usually determined by which country you live in or which country the streaming service is based in:

Content Licensing Agreements

Content licensing agreements are at the heart of the entertainment industry, dictating the terms under which content, such as movies, TV shows, music, and more, can be distributed and accessed. These agreements are contracts between content producers or rights holders (like movie studios or music labels) and distributors (like streaming services, TV networks, or radio stations). The agreements lay out specific conditions for content distribution, often including restrictions based on geographical regions, platforms, and the duration of availability.

The geographic restrictions are particularly significant in the context of streaming services. The reason is historical as well as economic. Historically, content distribution was managed region by region, due to factors such as differing release dates for movies or shows, varying tastes and cultural preferences among global audiences, and the staggered nature of traditional media distribution. Economically, different markets might have varying valuations for content. For instance, a movie might be in high demand in one country but not in another. Content producers can, therefore, maximize their revenue by selling the rights to that movie separately in different regions, often at different prices.

When streaming services like Netflix or Hulu obtain content, they often do so through these licensing agreements. Thus, they are bound to the terms set out in those contracts. If, for example, a streaming service has the rights to show a particular movie only in the U.S., it has to put measures in place to ensure that viewers outside the U.S. can’t access it. This is where VPNs come into play. Viewers might use VPNs to mask their actual locations and bypass these geographical restrictions. To remain compliant with their content licensing agreements and avoid potential legal ramifications, streaming services thus make efforts to detect and block VPN usage.

Preventing Piracy

For streaming services, VPNs, while having legitimate uses, can sometimes serve as tools aiding this illicit activity. Consequently, these services have taken measures to block VPNs as part of their larger strategy to combat piracy.

Piracy represents a significant financial drain on content creators, distributors, and streaming platforms. When users access content without paying for it, they undermine the revenue streams that fund production and distribution. While not everyone using a VPN does so with the intention of pirating content, VPNs can provide a cloak of anonymity, making it difficult for authorities and content providers to track and penalize offenders. This anonymous environment becomes conducive to piracy, as individuals can access content without leaving easily traceable digital footprints.

Furthermore, piracy doesn’t just have monetary implications. It can also affect a platform’s reputation. Streaming services rely on trust from both content creators, who want their material handled responsibly and securely, and consumers, who seek legitimate and high-quality viewing experiences. By taking a firm stance against VPNs known to facilitate piracy, streaming services send a clear message about their commitment to safeguarding content and ensuring its lawful distribution.

Maintain accurate viewership statistics

Maintaining accurate viewership statistics is of paramount importance for streaming services. These metrics serve as a window into the preferences and habits of the audience, guiding the decisions made by these platforms.

In the world of streaming, understanding what content resonates with audiences can determine the success or failure of a platform. When a user accesses a service via a VPN, the service might register that user as being in a different location than they actually are. This can distort the understanding of regional preferences. For example, a show might appear more popular in one country when, in fact, it’s being accessed by users from another country via VPN. Over time, such discrepancies can paint a misleading picture of what viewers in different regions are actually watching.

In addition to content acquisition and advertising, these statistics also play a role in content curation. Platforms often curate their libraries based on what’s trending in a given region. Misrepresented viewership can result in a platform pushing content that doesn’t truly resonate with its audience, leading to decreased user engagement and satisfaction.

Complying with legal obligations

As streaming platforms operate in multiple jurisdictions, they have to navigate a myriad of legal landscapes, each with its nuances and requirements.

Many countries have specific laws regarding the broadcast and distribution of foreign content. These laws can range from quotas for local content to restrictions on the portrayal of certain themes or narratives. By adhering to these regulations, streaming platforms can avoid fines, sanctions, or even bans in certain territories. If users were to bypass regional restrictions through VPNs and access content not meant for their region, it could put the streaming service in violation of these local laws.

Furthermore, while streaming services themselves are digital entities, they often operate under legal frameworks designed for traditional broadcasters. This means they might have obligations related to advertising standards, watershed timings (hours during which certain content can or cannot be shown), and even requirements related to emergency broadcasts or public service announcements. Allowing users to hop between regions using VPNs complicates adherence to these standards, as a user might be exposed to content outside of their region’s legal guidelines.

Why (how) do streaming services block VPNs

How do streaming services block VPNs?

Streaming services block VPNs using a number of techniques:

IP Address Blacklisting

IP address blacklisting is a prevalent method employed by streaming services to deter VPN usage. At its core, this technique involves maintaining a database of known IP addresses associated with VPN servers. Whenever a user attempts to access content on the streaming platform, the service checks the user’s IP address against this database. If there’s a match, it indicates the user is likely accessing the platform via a VPN, and their connection can be blocked or restricted accordingly.

The rationale behind this method is straightforward: VPN services route user traffic through their servers, masking the user’s actual IP address. While VPNs have many servers, the pool of IP addresses they use is finite and often identifiable. Over time, streaming services, often aided by third-party cybersecurity firms, can detect which IP addresses are associated with these VPN servers and add them to the blacklist.

Traffic analysis

Traffic analysis is a technique used by streaming services (and other online entities) to scrutinize the nature and patterns of data traffic coming into their servers. The goal is to distinguish between regular users and those employing VPNs or other anonymizing tools, even if the actual content of the traffic is encrypted.

At its core, traffic analysis observes the metadata – the data about data – rather than the content itself. By examining attributes like data packet sizes, sequence, timing, and request frequency, distinct patterns can emerge. For instance, VPNs might produce a consistent, encrypted traffic pattern that doesn’t resemble the more varied, organic traffic of a regular user.

Additionally, the rate at which requests are made can be a giveaway. For example, a VPN server serving multiple users might make requests at a higher, more constant rate than a single individual would, making it distinguishable to keen observers.

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) is an advanced network filtering method that goes beyond the typical inspection of IP addresses and ports. Instead, DPI delves into the actual data packets being transmitted over a network, examining the content, protocols, and even metadata of each packet.

In the context of streaming services blocking VPNs, DPI is particularly useful. VPNs work by encrypting a user’s data and rerouting it through a server in a different location. While the encryption ensures that the content of the data remains private, certain patterns related to VPN protocols can still be detected. By using DPI, a streaming service can identify these characteristic patterns and subsequently infer that a VPN is in use, even if they can’t explicitly see the content being transmitted.

This level of scrutiny enables streaming platforms to distinguish between regular traffic and that routed through VPNs. Once VPN traffic is detected via DPI, the service can then take measures, such as blocking the connection or redirecting the user to a notice page.

Port blocking

Essentially, the internet operates using various “ports,” which are logical points for transmitting or receiving data. Each type of online activity, whether it’s web browsing, sending an email, or accessing a streaming service, typically uses specific ports.

VPNs, in their operation, often use particular ports to establish their encrypted connections. By identifying the commonly used ports by VPN services, a streaming platform can decide to block traffic coming from those ports. When a user tries to access the streaming service while using a VPN that relies on one of these blocked ports, their connection is either refused or throttled.

This method can be effective because it targets the fundamental way VPNs communicate over the internet. However, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. Port blocking can sometimes impact other, legitimate services that happen to use the same ports.

Checking for multiple connections

Checking for multiple connections from a single IP address is a method streaming services use to identify potential VPN usage. When individual users access content, they usually do so from unique IP addresses, representing different households or devices. However, VPNs work by channeling the traffic of numerous users through shared servers, meaning many people can appear to be coming from the same IP address.

For streaming platforms, an unusually high number of concurrent connections from a single IP address is a clear anomaly. Such a pattern is inconsistent with regular viewing habits and is more suggestive of a VPN server’s operation. Recognizing this, the service might limit or block access from that IP, suspecting it to be a VPN attempting to bypass regional restrictions or other platform policies.

DNS leak tests

DNS stands for Domain Name System, which functions somewhat like the internet’s phonebook. Every time you type a website’s name into your browser, the DNS translates that human-friendly site name into an IP address that your computer understands. This conversion process happens through a DNS server.

When using a VPN, all your internet traffic, including DNS requests, should pass through the VPN tunnel, ensuring that your real IP address and browsing activities remain private. However, sometimes, due to configuration issues or other reasons, these DNS requests bypass the VPN tunnel and instead get directed to your ISP’s (Internet Service Provider) DNS servers. This phenomenon is referred to as a “DNS leak.”

From a streaming service’s perspective, a DNS leak can be quite revealing. Imagine a user connected to a VPN server in Country A but is physically located in Country B. If the streaming platform detects that the user’s IP address is from Country A but the DNS requests are being made to a server in Country B, it raises a flag. This discrepancy indicates the use of a VPN, and based on this information, the streaming service can choose to block or restrict the user’s access.

Patch Bowen
Patch Bowen is an accomplished technology journalist with a solid academic foundation, holding a degree from Auckland University. His expertise spans across a range of tech topics, with a notable focus on product reviews, industry trends, and the impact of technology on society. With his work featured on major New Zealand websites like Stuff.co.nz, thebit.nz, and The Press, Patch has established himself as a credible voice in technology media. His articles are known for their detailed analysis and practical insights, particularly in making complex technological concepts understandable for a broad audience. At ReviewsFire, Patch is renowned for his thorough evaluations and clear, informative writing style. He has a knack for identifying and explaining the nuances of the latest gadgets and digital trends, earning him a reputation as a trusted source for tech advice and information.

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