A couple watches Netflix together on a tablet.
Proxima Studio/Shutterstock  

With Netflix’s yearly price hikes and severe lack of sitcoms, account sharing can look a lot more appealing than a monthly subscription fee. But how does Netflix feel about account sharing, and why hasn’t the company stopped the practice?

Everybody Shares a Netflix Account

When we say “account sharing,” we aren’t talking about sharing an account with your family. We’re talking about a practice that violates Netflix’s Terms of Use: the sharing of an account with friends, neighbors, internet strangers, and other grown adults that you don’t live with. This practice is widespread; it’s practically a touchstone of modern culture. With every nasty breakup, awkward move-in, or sudden bout of friendship-drama, somebody’s gaining or losing a free Netflix profile.

Twenty-four million people use a Netflix account that they don’t pay for according to an estimate from Cordcutting.com. That’s a lot of people. If an estimated 24 million people were using your product for free, wouldn’t you get a little upset?

You’ve probably gathered this from experience, but Netflix doesn’t care about account sharing. Or, at least, the company doesn’t do anything about it. Its Terms of Use explicitly prohibit the ubiquitous practice, but that rule is never enforced. Even the most blatant forms of account sharing go unpunished. You can uninhibitedly share your Netflix login info with people who live across the country or even people who live in another continent. We’ve never heard of Netflix terminating an account because it was being shared.

But Netflix must know that it has an account sharing problem. Again, it’s practically a part of our culture. So how is Netflix dealing with account sharing and exactly how much money is it losing?

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Offer Family Plans

Netflix’s Terms of Use specifically bars the use of account sharing, so why doesn’t the website punish account sharers? In the words of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, “password sharing is something you have to learn to live with, because there’s so much legitimate password sharing, like you sharing with your spouse.” Netflix is “doing fine as is,” without hunting down account sharers.

Punishing account sharers isn’t worth the risk. If the company writes an algorithm to detect account sharers, there’s a chance that families would be mistakenly banned or suspended for sharing an account. That’s just bad PR.

A group of friends watches Netflix on a couch.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

So, like a skilled fighter, Netflix chooses to pivot. The streaming service has made account sharing more appealing by adding a “profiles” feature. Netflix also offers premium plans that allow watching Netflix on up to four devices at a time. These family plans are beneficial for account sharers, and they give users a reason to pay Netflix an extra $7 a month.

While it’s fair to argue that family plans and profiles exist for actual family use, it’s hard to deny the fact that these features make account sharing super easy—even for the one person who’s paying for the account.

Account Sharing is Largely Beneficial for Netflix

Account sharing can save you a lot of money, but what about Netflix’s wallet? Reed Hastings claims the company is “doing fine” in spite of account sharing, but exactly how much money is Netflix missing out on?

Account sharing costs Netflix around 2.3 billion dollars a year according to an estimate from Cordcutting.com. Yes, this estimate assumes that every Netflix-bum would actually pay for an account if they had to, but it still gives you a pretty good idea of the cash that Netflix is missing out on. If even a third of account sharers paid for a Netflix account, the company would net an extra $660 million every year.

For a company that’s 12 billion dollars in debt, that money could be a valuable asset. So, should these estimated losses stress Netflix out? No, not really.

For one thing, Netflix’s family plans act as a concession for these losses. A four-screen “Premium” Netflix account costs $7 (or 43%) more per month than a “Basic” Netflix account. Technically, these “Premium” plans provide Netflix at least an extra $100 million per year, assuming that the 24 million Netflix-bums are logging into “Premium” plans.

Plus, account sharing helps the Netflix brand compete with Hulu’s aggressive marketing tactics. Hulu, which was recently acquired by a billion-dollar corporation called Disney, intentionally operates at a loss. Basically, the streaming service is offering its basic plan for an unsustainable $6 per month in an attempt to put Netflix out of business. Even if a Netflix subscriber switches over to Hulu, they can still keep up with the Netflix brand by logging into a friend’s account.

Algorithms Could End Account Sharing

Why hasn’t Netflix ended account sharing? While it’s possible that the company genuinely doesn’t care about account sharing, it’s also possible that Netflix doesn’t have the resources to find and punish account sharers accurately. If the company were to roll out an algorithm that detects and bans account sharers, it could accidentally punish legitimate account sharers, like families or roommates. This practice would be grossly unfair, it would jeopardize the legitimacy of Netflix’s family plans, and it would hurt the Netflix brand.

This is where Synamedia comes in. Synamedia, a UK company that used to be owned by Cisco, recently unveiled a “Credentials Sharing Insight” algorithm that “turns casual password sharing into incremental revenues.” Basically, this European company has an algorithm that accurately detects account sharing.

Judging by Synamedia’s claims, this algorithm is extremely effective. It’s capable of viewing habits and location habits of a user to identify when non-paying viewers log into an account. It can detect whether a user is “viewing at their main home” or a “holiday home.” It could also detect if a subscriber has “grown-up children who live away from home” so streaming services won’t punish the wrong people for account sharing.

Remember, Netflix’s Terms of Use prohibits account sharing, so the company could implement Synamedia’s algorithm without warning.  If Netflix decides to contract Synamedia for its algorithm, then you can say goodbye to your ex’s account. And, while Netflix hasn’t shown any interest in the anti-sharing algorithm, a few of the company’s competitors have. AT&T (the owner of DIRECTV) and Disney (the owner of Hulu and Disney+) recently invested in Synamedia. If other media companies decide to implement such an anti-sharing algorithm, it could be only a matter of time before Netflix chooses to follow suit.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »