Netflix begins password-sharing crackdown in the UK

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After years of ignoring password sharing, Netflix has started to crack down on the millions of UK subscribers who give friends and family free access to their account.

It is thought that a quarter of Netflix’s 15 million UK subscribers share their password with others, and warning emails are now landing in the inboxes of some of these account holders.

The alert will come as a shock to some long-term subscribers as the streaming company had previously turned a blind eye to password sharing. So what are the rules if, like many other Britons, you have previously been relaxed about who logs on where?

When Nick James got the email it wasn’t a big surprise. For several years he had been allowing his sister-in-law to watch Netflix using his account.

The email, sent at the end of May, was polite but clear. “Your Netflix account is for you and the people you live with – your household,” it stated before offering him the option of adding her to his account, but only if he paid an extra £4.99 a month.

Customers signing up to Netflix’s most popular standard (£10.99 a month) package can watch via two supported devices – a TV, laptop, mobile. For £15.99, households can use four different devices at the same time, even if the viewers are in different parts of the world.

This has led to students using their parents’ accounts while at university, the kids of separated parents watching the same account at two households, and plenty of cases like the James’s.

However, not all account holders who have been allowing their account to be used by others have been receiving the “warning” email received by James, and others. So far it seems that emails have mainly been sent to account holders where the extra non-household user has logged on to a smart TV or has used a Fire Stick or similar to connect their account to a television.

Students watching shows such as Stranger Things on their laptop or mobile at their halls in, say, Birmingham, while their account holder parents watch something else at home in Manchester, do not appear to have triggered an email.

Password sharers who all watch the service on mobile devices have similarly been untroubled by the crackdown emails.

Guardian Money asked Netflix in an effort to clarify the rules, and while the streaming firm did not want to get into the detail of how it worked, it told us that it defines a household as “a collection of the devices connected to the internet at the main place you watch Netflix”.

It was also keen to point out that the changes do not affect travel. Users can continue to watch Netflix as usual “on your portable devices or sign in to a new TV, like at a hotel or a holiday rental”, it says.

For those who live in two places – the children of separated parents, those with a second home – or those who work away during the week, it seems that as long as you log into Netflix once a month at the “home” address, you will be able to carry on as before.

Users who are unsure which household is their home should, according to Netflix, go to settings, click on get help, and then “manage Netflix household”.

The company declined to say how students heading off to university will be treated. It seems if they return home occasionally and log on at the home address, they should be fine – as they will probably be, if they only watch using a mobile or laptop.

Ultimately, though, it seems the worst thing that will happen is that the person using the shared account will simply lose their viewing. Netflix has confirmed that there is no sanction for account holders who allowed their passwords to be used by others.

Those denied viewing can either hope the account holder is prepared to stump up the extra £4.99 to allow them to keep them online, or to sign up for their own account. Packages at the streaming firm start at £4.99 if you are prepared to endure adverts, or £6.99 a month if you are not.