Netflix password sharing crackdown: What does the update mean, and what are the rules now?

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Friday 12 March 2021 14:24
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Netflix has launched a crackdown on password sharing, leading to fears that the days of joint accounts could be over.

Under the test, users see a screen that tells them they might need to buy their account.

And in some circumstances it even asks them to confirm they know the account holder, by verifying through a code.

The feature is being trialled at the moment, but the company confirmed that it is aimed at ensuring that only people “authorised” to use an account are doing so.

Here’s everything you need to know about the update – including whether people might soon be kicked out of their accounts.

What is Netflix’s latest update?

The new change – which is so far only being seen by select users, and has been confirmed by Netflix to be a “test” – is a nudge designed to make people sign up for their account.

Users report seeing a screen saying, ““If you don’t live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching”.

It then directs them to the option to confirm they do indeed know the owner through a verification system. That will send an email or text to the person registered as the owner of the account, so that they or the person watching can put it in.

It also offers some people a free trial for a month, so they can sign up themselves. That is despite the fact that Netflix no longer actually offers its free trials generally, bringing them to an end in favour of other ways of encouraging people to sign up.

All of this can, however, be skipped – at least for now. It is possible to bypass the prompt without doing any of the verification or confirming that you are the account’s owner.

Is this a sign that something is going to change?

For now, the change is very much a soft prompt; Netflix is not kicking people out of shared accounts. In a way, nothing has changed at all, since people can go on using their accounts – whether they own them or live with the owner or not – just as they did before.

But there is nothing to say that will not change in the future, or that the company will not at least make it more difficult for people to share their passwords.

But, equally, Netflix has been fairly permissive about such sharing in the past. In 2016, co-founder and chief executive Reed Hastings said that “password sharing is something you have to learn to live with, because there’s so much legitimate password sharing”.

It’s more likely that the crackdown is aimed at what the site might refer to as illegitimate password sharing: accounts that are shared way beyond a family, perhaps by people who don’t know each other. The way it is checking whether an account is being shared seems to confirm that.

How does Netflix know when I’m sharing passwords?

It is not exactly clear how Netflix is tracking its users’ password sharing behaviours, or whether it is using any tracking to decide when the show the prompts and who to.

But there are a host of ways that it is possible to. Every time a device logs in, it registers its IP address and information with Netflix, which can easily use that to know whether multiple people are logging in in various locations, though it is not foolproof.

You can see some of this data if you check in your own account, where it will show the devices that are logged in as well as a guess about where they might be. You can then click to log people out, if you find people sharing your account that you’d rather didn’t.

Other companies have provided more advanced versions of such technology. In 2019, a video software firm revealed artificially intelligent tools that look for unusual patterns that could indicate an account being shared.

What are the rules about sharing passwords now?

Netflix is relatively relaxed about sharing passwords in general, and there is no rule requiring that people each have their own account.

In fact, the entire “profiles” feature is built around various people using one account, and is aimed at ensuring they can each do so as if they have their own login. It also offers the ability to watch on multiple devices at once as part of its numerous membership tiers.

But the rules restrict how such logins are shared. “The Netflix service and any content viewed through the service are for your personal and non-commercial use only and may not be shared with individuals beyond your household,” the Netflix’s terms read.

The definition of “household”, here, is of course unclear. Netflix seems to take it to mean people who live in your house.

But it almost certainly does not mean that you need to use one Netflix account in any given household, which would stop people from travelling to other places and still being able to log in. It’s presumably those difficulties and complexities that are one of the reasons Netflix has not yet cracked down more broadly.

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