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What the Tech: Netflix’s password plan proves that playtime is over for streaming

The stricter new policy from the entertainment giant just goes to show how much has the formerly friendly face of online streaming has changed.

Whether it be a trusted friend or a shameless ex-partner, many of us have acquaintances who use our Netflix account almost as much as we use it ourselves. But even though multiple logins are permitted from one account, that’s strictly only meant for one household — and now it seems that the streaming service is going to clamp down where we weren’t brave enough to, and boot freeloading friends from accessing its content.

Upon starting up Netflix, some users reported being confronted with a black screen demanding that they verified themselves before they could continue to watch some mediocre US sitcom or other. This verification process hasn’t yet been rolled out site-wide, but it can’t be long until it is.

The new policy can hardly count as a surprise, and those of you who have been making the most of this loophole surely knew that your borrowed content was on borrowed time. Let’s at least be thankful that the hammer is falling after, rather than before, a long year of lockdowns.

Nonetheless it does mark a new era in streaming that’s not necessarily for the better. When the likes of Netflix first arrived on the scene, they were a breath air because they seemed so much freer than the alternatives. A wide selection of content in high definition for a very reasonable monthly rate liberated us from both the clutter of physical media and the guilt of online piracy.

However once Netflix has established itself across the world, its brand now a byword for bingeing TV series to one’s heart’s content, it was inevitable that serious competition would emerge especially from major networks and studios.

Some forms of competition are good for the consumer; when two services offer the same products for different prices or at different qualities, you can make a choice between the two for whatever suits your needs best; but the problem of streaming services is their insistence on exclusivity. Each one boasts of offering films or series that are unavailable anywhere else.

In today’s fragmented streaming market you would have to pay monthly subscriptions to Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, Now TV, and BritBox if you wanted constant access to all of your favourite shows. On top of that, HBO Max has also launched in many territories (though not yet the UK), and Paramount Plus is also on its way. 

Further ramping up the competition, streaming services feel compelled to invest in more and more new exclusives to distinguish themselves; the sheer quantity of Star Wars and Marvel content in the works at Disney Plus is simply staggering. In turn, this necessitates higher monthly costs from its users: the price of a Disney Plus subscription increased in August last year, while Netflix increased its rates in February.

It’s starting to feel like a crazy house party gone out of control, with guests you don’t even recognise filling your foyer and filching your food.

With Netflix now prohibiting you from piggybacking on your friends’ accounts, evidently to push more people into paying their own subscriptions, this claustrophobic competition could become more concentrated, as rivals will surely follow suit.

Eventually it’s reasonable to assume that the market will calm down and condense back into just two or three services, with the others having been squeezed out of contention. In the meantime we’re just going to have to go with the flow, and we’re heading towards the rapids. It’s the end of the river — or at least a bend in the river — for streaming as we’ve known it.

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