THE BIG WIDE WIRED WORLD (WHTM) — The boom has gone bust for streaming services.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people stuck in their homes unable to go much of anywhere or do much of anything, subscriptions to services like Netflix, Disney, Hulu, Amazon, HBO, and Apple shot up faster than an F-35 with the afterburners kicked in.
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But as the pandemic lost steam, so did the rush to subscribe. Many services have actually been losing subscribers, as the urge to get out and do things overpowered the urge to shut out the world and stare at a screen. So now streaming services are trying to cut losses, and increase revenue. One way to do that-crack down on password sharing.
Lots of people share their passwords with family and friends, and even before the pandemic, streaming services pretty much looked the other way – that is when they weren’t actively encouraging it. On March 10, 2017, Netflix tweeted “Love is sharing a password.” But that was then, this is now, and the services are trying to figure out the best ways to discourage the practice because it’s costing subscription fees. But how do they know when someone is sharing? And for that matter, how do you define “sharing”?
As for how they know, much of it centers on three things: device IDs, IP addresses, and physical addresses.
Every piece of hardware that connects to the internet – computers, cell phones, tablets, TVs, and whatever it is that guy down the street is working on in his garage – comes with its own, built-in device ID. This usually takes the form of an alphanumeric string and never changes no matter where the device is plugged in.
The IP in IP address stands for Internet Protocol. In a typical home setup, IP addresses come in two flavors: The private IP address, one of which is given to each device in your house, and the public IP address, which is the main address for your whole network. This is usually supplied to your router by your internet service provider.
The physical address is where you live or work, or both. Quite likely you gave this to your streaming service when you signed up. So if your account login gets used on a device with an unknown device ID or an IP address that doesn’t match what’s in your streaming service account, they’re going to suspect you shared your password.
But what does “shared” mean? Obviously, if you scribble down your password on a piece of scrap paper, hand it to someone, and say “Enjoy!” that’s pretty cut and dried. But what about a family member who took a laptop with them on vacation, or to college, or has just moved into an apartment? How about if you go visit a friend (who for some reason can’t come over to your place) and knowing said friend doesn’t subscribe to a particular service, you take along your laptop so you can watch a show together? Will plugging into someone else’s network constitute password sharing, even if you didn’t share the password?
Yes, there are a lot of thorny issues involved with reining in password sharing, and the streaming services are treading warily, trying to generate more revenue without aggravating subscribers so much they log off permanently. This is going to take a long time to sort out and expect things to be messy and confusing for a while.