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.
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.