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While streaming platforms like Netflix make it easy to enjoy your favorite movies and television shows, they also help educate the world on the importance of online privacy — albeit unintentionally.
Content streaming platforms are, in many ways, antithetical to the concept of online privacy. Take Netflix, for example. The entire library of content you see when you open the app is catered toward your particular interests. Did you watch a goofball romantic comedy 3 months ago? If you did, Netflix remembers. Not only does it remember, but it will use that information to bombard you with dozens of similar movies that you might like to watch.
Other streaming brands are no different. In fact, some have even less regard for your privacy. Services like Amazon Prime Video and Google Play are arguably worse, as they are so integrated with your everyday online activity that they can literally suggest content to you based on your search engine inquiries, online purchases, and even household conversations.
So, how is it that these streaming platforms, which seem to know more about you than you do, can help teach millions of people about online privacy? The truth is that, while these companies and products rarely show much regard for the privacy concerns of their users, accessing their content often requires the use of an increasingly popular service: the Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
If you’re unfamiliar with VPNs, they are a popular digital service that allows you to have a greater degree of privacy when using the internet. There are dozens of VPN providers out there, with each offering varied cybersecurity features — from malware blockers to network security monitoring. While VPN services differ in their secondary offerings, they all serve the same primary function: to provide you with anonymity when using the internet.
However, this is not why a large percentage of subscribers use VPNs. Most TV & movie streaming services are limited to select countries and regions. Even if a service like Netflix or Disney+ is available in your location, the type of content available to you could be drastically different than the content available to someone on the other side of the planet. In many cases, streaming services provide the most robust content libraries to users in their largest and most lucrative markets — particularly the United States. Consequently, people living or traveling outside of the US may want to access content that would otherwise be region-locked. Enter Virtual Private Networks.
In addition to making your activity anonymous, VPNs make your real location virtually untraceable via IP masking. This means that, rather than appearing to access the internet from your current location (as indicated by your real IP address), the VPN reroutes your connection through a proxy server in a different location. This gives websites and applications the impression that you’re accessing the internet from another place entirely. As you can imagine, this makes it very easy for people all over the world to use streaming platforms (and access region-locked content) from just about anywhere.
The Constant “Battle” Between VPNs and Streaming Services
The fact that using a VPN is against the terms of service for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and pretty much every other streaming platform out there is largely irrelevant. Yes, it’s true that using a VPN runs the risk of being blocked from using the service (if the company detects that you’re using a proxy server), but it almost never results in a permanent ban. Why? Because these companies want your money.
Streaming services have certain licensing and copyright obligations that prevent them from distributing some or all of their content to people in certain countries. So, while they may actively work to prevent VPNs from allowing people to circumvent region blocks, they’re not inclined to ban paying customers from using their service.
Meanwhile, VPN companies know that a large share of their subscribers only use their services to unblock streaming platforms. As a result, they are always working to stay one step ahead of streaming service blocks, ensuring that their users are far less likely to encounter messages like “you seem to be using a proxy or unblocker” when they want to watch their favorite TV show or movie. Thus, the cycle of VPNs and streaming services working against each other while simultaneously benefiting from one another continues.
Why VPNs Help Raise Awareness of Online Privacy & Security Concerns
Though Netflix and other streaming services do absolutely nothing to educate consumers on things like IP masking, location tracking, network security, and general online privacy — VPNs do. Every day, more and more people are becoming aware of the inherent risks of connecting to the internet. From hackers stealing your banking information to government authorities tracking and storing your online activities, there are plenty of reasons to take online privacy seriously. While VPNs may educate people about these concerns out of self-interest, it doesn’t change the fact that they do educate people.
After all, things like PPTP or IPSec protocols are relatively foreign concepts for the average consumer; VPNs help simplify these online security measures and deliver them in a simple, easy-to-use package. However, when using a service that is relatively unfamiliar, most people are still inclined to shop around and do their homework.
By searching for things like “best VPN to watch Netflix,” consumers can find various VPN services that help explain exactly why they’re useful — and not just for streaming videos. In turn, people can learn exactly how their online activities can be viewed, stored, manipulated, and used by others — helping to strengthen online privacy awareness and bring virtual anonymity to millions.
Originally published on Medium.