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Netflix’s account sharing changes threaten to leave students behind

It feels like the streaming bubble gets closer to bursting every day.

The past year has seen numerous controversies in the world of streaming entertainment; subscription price increases, removal of original content, even the cancelation of near-complete projects. And while almost all of the major streaming services have rising subscriber counts, the long-term viability of the industry seems fraught at best.

This became especially apparent when, on Feb. 1, Netflix’s United States FAQ page was updated to reveal significant changes to how users would be able to share their account.

Under the new system, accounts would be tied to a primary location, and using Netflix on a device not connected there would begin a 30 day timer that would lock users out of the account if it runs out. To avoid this, users would need to log in to the account on that device at that primary location within the 30 day window, starting the timer over again.

There was, to put it mildly, a reaction to this news.

People flooded social media sites with outrage and concerns over these changes, which many saw as a brazen attempt to increase Netflix’s subscriber numbers. Especially vocal were college students, who recognized that having to return home to continue using a family account would be impractical at best and impossible at worst.

Deirdre Jost, a senior mathematics major at Miami University, was initially taken aback by the news.

“It kind of just astonishes me that in this day and age such a big company can be so stupid,” Jost said. “People are paying for a number of screens, so you should be able to watch that number of screens.”

Owen Callesen, a senior history and media & communications double major, believes the changes make more sense when viewed within Netflix’s business strategies.

“I was confused for a second, and then it all made complete sense when I remembered that they released a [cheaper] version with advertising,” Callesen said. “They know that all those college students that can’t pay [for] their own account are going to go to the [cheaper] version with the advertising, and that probably means they make more money via the advertising way.”

Netflix launched its “Basic with ads” plan back in November 2022 at $6.99 per month, which is essentially the same as the “Basic” plan ($9.99 per month) but features advertising breaks during programming and does not include everything on the service.

Callesen believes these proposed changes are entirely profit driven.

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“Clearly it’s a money-motivated decision because it pissed off a lot of fans,” Callesen said. “It couldn’t have been to keep the audience happy. It was just kind of frustrating and annoying that a company that knows they have such a strong fanbase would do something to piss off that fanbase.”

The speed and ferocity of the backlash to Netflix’s changes were immediately apparent. The day after the information was posted to its U.S. website, the company removed it and released a statement claiming it had been added on accident.

“For a brief time Tuesday, a Help Center article containing information that is only applicable to Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru went live in other countries,” read the statement. “We have since updated it.”

Despite the company’s insistence that the information had been erroneously released, many, including Jost, questioned if it was instead a reaction to the public outcry.

“I think they leaked it just to see how people would react, and then realized people didn’t like it and took it back and tried to cover their asses,” Jost said. “I think that was pretty purposeful.”

Netflix’s stated purpose with its changes to account sharing is to create a more secure platform for its customers, a sentiment Callesen finds disingenuous.

“Maybe there is a degree of truth to that, and they do genuinely just want their accounts to be more secure,” Callesen said. “But I feel like there has to be a better way of achieving security without displacing so many people that watch it.”

While Netflix seems to have at least paused its rollout of changes in the U.S., it has continued to expand them to other countries, beginning the crackdown on account sharing in Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain on Feb. 8.

Through these countries, there have been glimpses at how the company plans to handle people who may not live at an account’s primary location — though even those solutions aren’t ideal either.

Subscribers can pay an additional fee to add up to two people to an account who may not live at its home base. Based on conversions from other countries, this could cost around $10 for two profiles.

For students like Jost and Callesen, both of whom have multiple siblings, this would still be a problem.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s still behind a paywall, but adding that other account, at least for the families where only two households are using it, that works,” Callesen said. “But otherwise it seems like just a Band-Aid on a wound that needs surgery.”

Whenever Netflix inevitably brings account sharing limits to the U.S., it will need to decide: is it most obligated to its customers or to the money they provide?