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ISPs accused of blocking Netflix

LATEST: ISPs accused of blocking Netflix — the mystery solved

On social media and Geekzone, there's been an explosion of complaints from people no longer able to access Netflix (the popular, US-based movie and TV series streaming service).

It's important to note these people aren't file-sharing pirates. They're paying a monthly fee to access Netflix' service. An ISP or local content rights holder messing with this arrangement would be like NBR holding rights to New York Times stories as part of its paywall content, then trying to block people who wanted to subscribe to the Times directly.

Conspiracy theories have been rife.

For example, that Telecom, which recently joined the trend toward unlimited plans and is planning its own movie and TV streaming service, is now "shaping traffic" to throttle Netflix.

A post on the help forum of Unblock-us, a popular piece of software for beating geo-block restrictions on Netflix, fuelled speculation. The help thread (still open) says:

Our Tech Team have been busy carrying out extensive testing on this Netflix US/Canada issue affecting New Zealand customers on some ISP's.

From these tests it has been concluded that it looks like these ISP's or their upstream providers* have implemented traffic shaping, specifically to US based CDN's [content delivery networks].**

Users of Unotelly and other Unblock-us rivals have reported similar problems. So have users of other video streaming services, such as Hulu. (Taking a slightly different tack, using an iTunes US account via an Apple TV unit, I haven't had any problems. But it's a complicated landscape. There are a number of ways to access Netflix; one is via a Netflix app on Apple TV when you're logged in as a US users — and here people have reported problems).

Blogger and technology commentator David Farrar tells NBR, " It would be appalling if any New Zealand ISPs are secretly blocking access to legal websites such as Netflix. Customers pay ISPs so they can access the Internet, not so they can block the Internet. At a minimum any ISP that does block Netflix should tell its customers it is doing so, so they can choose to swap to another ISP.

"However it is important to note that at this stage no information is available on where the blocking is happening, and who is responsible."

"We don't do anything to block Netflix access," Telecom spokesman Richard Llewellyn told NBR last night.

This morning, via Twitter, Telecom's Troy Rawhiti-Forbes. "We don't peer directly with NF [Netflix], so can't comment on root cause. We aren't shaping traffic though." (Peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent, which is often used for piracy are another matter, however. All ISPs routinely shape peer-to-peer traffic when unlimited plans are in play).

Users of other ISPs, including Vodafone and Slingshot, have also had problems accessing Netflix. Other ISPs, including Orcon and Snap, are apparently unaffected.

It's not a case of Slingshot backing away from its controversial Global Mode, which allows geo-block-beating technology to be enabled with a mouse-click. "We have made no changes, but are aware that some customers with Global Mode enabled are reporting issues with Netflix on some devices. We are working on a solution, and will update customers as soon as we can," a Slingshot spokesman tells NBR.

Geekzone blogger Steve Biddle points out another possible cause: Netflix and Hulu taking steps to block foreign users themselves — possibly under pressure from Hollywood (TV and film makers get a cut from foreign users of Netflix and Hulu, but can make more selling to regional distributors).

Last month, TorrentFreak reported Hulu was actively blocking anonymiser services used by those outside the US to access its content. And Netflix has been tightening up access, albeit with the headline aim of stopping domestic subscribers sharing accounts, Bloomberg reports (NBR has a query in with Netflix).

On Geekzone and AdBlock-us help forum, new workarounds are being shared.

The tiresome game of cat-and-mouse continues for those determined to pay for movie and TV content online — but the content of their choice, not a pre-canned Sky TV selection (and don't worry about Sky, it'll be fine as long as it still has a lock on NZ sport).

"At the end of the day it just shows how the industry is stuck in the 1970s with a distribution model revolving around selling the identical product to 100+ times over to individual countries around the world. That simply can't survive."

Change is gonna come. One day, Netflix — or a player of comparable muscle — will set up in NZ. That will turn the market on its head, either through Netflix NZ itself gaining traction, or Sky being nudged into launching a Netflix-style service itself (CEO John Fellet says it's already run the numbers).


* Some in the ISP community have pointed fingers at Level 3 Communications, a US telecommunications company that wholesales and manages bandwidth for ISPs, among other activities.

** About-us' Mer Xiao emailed NBR this morning:

We're still currently working with our customers to investigate the issue (as well as working on an alternative solution in the meanwhile). From what we gathered so far, it may not be the ISPs who blocked Netflix, but their upstream providers. It seems some of ISPs are just as puzzled as we are at the moment.


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Comments and questions

It's probably the upstream providers, but it still smacks of serious turf protection and archaic thinking that is anything but customer-focused. So much for a free and open Internet.

Free trade and meeting customer needs only applies when it suits American multinationals.

Im not seeing any issues from here, my Netflix peering in the US is up and they are still sending data through directly. I did note before they used to send via level 3 in the US which Telecom and Vocus use.

New Zealand ISPs have all agreed to post details about the service they offer in the form of a standardised product disclosure process. Part of that is the requirement that they explain any such throttling, shaping or similar.

Most ISPs that comply with the code now have some kind of explanation, although they vary from the vague "may throttle some file types" through to the more detailed.

I'd encourage customers to contact their ISPs about the issue and get some kind of response from them all. Customers need to know what service they're buying and if ISPs change that service specification, customers should be informed.

Paul Brislen
TUANZ chief executive

Meanwhile, here in Singapore, my ISP actually provides access to Netflix as a value-add to the S$65monthly unlimited fibre plan...

Now that's the sort of deal we need in New Zealand! :)

Of course blame the ISP when you don't know how the service works bypassing Geo unblocking! Nice one

I think you mean 'bypassing geoblocking'? You're right - the people who 'use' this service are doing it in a grey area, but they're also paying for a service. Unfortunately this grey area means there's no-one who can offer support. Rock/hard place etc.

This is what I got from

MAY 27, 2014 | 12:42PM EDT
*Katherine Brown* replied:
Hi Stephen,

Thanks for the offer of help.

We've investigated the issue, and we no longer need any more test results.
Here is what we've found :

1. Netflix recently changed the format of URLs for US and Canadian CDN used
for video streaming

2. The affected NZ providers are using transparent caching proxies for the
Netflix CDN range of IP addresses.

They are NOT using these for other IP ranges we tested.

3. The affected NZ providers are using transparent caching proxies that are
set up incorrectly:

- They cache content with "no cache" directive in HTTP header (Pragma:
no-cache & Cache-Control: no-store)

- They ignore query string part of the URL for caching

The combination of 1, 2 and 3 has resulted in the Netflix streaming issue.
Netflix has started using query string part of the URL to request the movie

Since the content is cached incorrectly, the Netflix player tries to get a
fragment of the movie but gets a completely different movie piece from the
proxy and shows the error message.

Affected ISPs have to reconfigure their proxies to:
Take query string into account OR
Respect "no cache" directive OR
Turn them off for Netflix CDN IP range as caching Netflix streaming does
not provide any benefit to the ISP.

We encourage you to send the above to your ISP - as this is how they can
fix the issue. If enough of you speak up - then your ISP might do something
about it.