The shady side of Netflix

Say it ain't so! There's no denying Netflix has changed the way we watch television — and the way we plan romantic date nights — but do a little digging, and you'll find there's some weird and shady stuff going on behind the scenes at everyone's favorite streaming service.

It's easy to forget Netflix started out as a DVD rental company not unlike Blockbuster. Way back in the heady, pre-Y2K days of 1998, they struck on a different sort of rental plan that had users paying a single subscription fee that gave them access to unlimited movies instead of asking them to pay by the rental. They didn't become a streaming service until 2007, they only went global in 2010, and started getting serious about their own original programming in 2013. CNN reported Netflix hit the 125-million-subscriber mark in April 2018, an insane amount of growth.

How did they get there? It turns out Netflix isn't exactly the squeaky-clean Boy Scout of streaming services — there are quite a few skeletons in the digital closet. It's probably a safe bet none of these are going to make it into a Netflix original documentary.

They don't care what you think

If you just stream Netflix on your television, you might not even know there's a way to tell the world exactly what you think of each title you watch. You have to — or rather, had to — log onto their website to leave a review, and in theory, it allowed users to give an in-depth explanation of, say, why they decided to give Bright only a single star. (Because there's no negative-star option.)

Sounds like it might be a handy feature to have, right? Unfortunately for you, Netflix doesn't care what you think about Bright or any other hits and misses. According to CNet, Netflix didn't just decide to revoke the ability to write reviews — they decided to wipe out all the reviews their subscribers have ever written.

The decision came just after Netflix swapped out star ratings for a gladiatorial-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down, a system one reviewer called "the epitome of uselessness." Netflix says they're getting rid of reviews because fewer people are using them, but it's still pretty inexplicable as to why they're making it harder for you to find something you might like.

What's up with that star rating system?

Netflix got rid of their weird star rating system in April 2017, and Polygon reported it only took a day before people were fed up with the stupidity of the new love-or-hate, thumb-based system. It was proof things could go from bad to worse, and if you ever thought the star rating system didn't work well, you're not the only one.

According to BGR, the stars you saw weren't a compilation of what all subscribers rated any particular title, as you probably would expect. Instead, Netflix sorts users into groups based on viewing habits, and users see stars based on what similar users think of a title. That's why you saw shows being awarded 5 stars at the same time the rest of the world gave it zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Recommendations are even more complicated, and Radio Times looked at how ratings influenced what Netflix recommends for you. They found it has less to do with what you say you like and more to do with what you actually watch.

Look at it this way. You might rate foreign-language dramas as all deserving 5 stars or all thumbs-up, but Netflix knows you've actually binged It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Trailer Park Boys an unhealthy number of times. They're going to recommend something based on what you actually watch, not what you pretend you like you watch. So, do ratings mean anything? Who knows?

Your account might be traded on the dark web

Say you're the type who loves crime dramas, horror, and the occasional psychological thriller. Suddenly, you notice stand-up specials and sappy teen movies popping up in your recommendations. It must be Netflix's recommendation system getting things horribly wrong, right?

Maybe not. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that there's a booming black market trade when it comes to login credentials for Netflix and sister streaming sites like Hulu. They're not just being sold to shady people who don't want to pay full price for Orange is the New Black, they're being sold to hackers who use them to get victim information like zip codes and names of family members. That information is then used to start scamming.

Time says there are a few things you should check if you're worried someone might have stolen your Netflix account. Start by checking your recent viewing activity and recent account access. If there's odd activity or IP addresses, log out of all devices and change your passwords. If your language options suddenly change, it's also a red flag something's up … and this time, it might not be your teenager after all.

That time they told everyone what you watch

Netflix knows you don't want to spend your night looking for something to watch — they estimate you're only going to glance at around 45 titles before you get bored (via Radio Times). That makes their recommendation system super important, and in 2006 they announced the Netflix Prize competition. A cool million was up for grabs, and it would go to anyone who could improve their recommendations by at least 10 percent. It took a few years, but it was ultimately awarded … and sent Netflix to court over privacy violations.

User data is supposed to be anonymous, but researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found out it was possible to match subscribers to all the information Netflix passed around to anyone interested in the competition. The scale was huge and compromised almost half a million subscribers who had logged more than 100 million movie ratings.

Forbes says Netflix settled the lawsuit in 2010 and stopped the Netflix Prize II, a competition that was poised to include things like zip codes and gender in the data sets, presumably making them even more tempting. The punchline to the whole thing is that the winning million-dollar code was never even implemented. Wired says Netflix found it was just too much work on the back end, making the whole thing an extra-big waste of time.

They were busted using pirated subtitles

Subtitles are a good thing. They allow people with disabilities access to films and TV, and they allow English-speakers access to foreign films they can discuss around the water cooler to sound all artsy and hipster. But in 2012, Netflix ran into some problems when they were caught using pirated subtitles with some of their Finnish content.

And yes, pirated subtitles are indeed a thing. TorrentFreak says unauthorized subtitles are considered a violation of copyright, and individuals running sites that use them are subject to fines and possible jail time. U.S. studios are particularly active in going after these sites, as they let foreign-speaking users watch U.S. movies before they're officially licensed in other countries.

One of the shows Netflix was caught using fansubs with was Andromeda, and TorrentFreak says the scale was probably even larger than what they got busted for. Hilariously, Netflix included credit to the fan sites in their own credits, and they did apologize with a promise to investigate how it happened.

They've been pretty terrible to their deaf customers

In 2011, the National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix for not bothering to offer a closed-captioning option with most of their movies and TV shows. According to CNet, the lawsuit was sort of a last resort that came after years of appeals to Netflix, asking them to make their content easily accessible to the roughly 36 million Americans who are either hard of hearing or deaf. Netflix said they were working on it, and hoped that about 80 percent of their programs would be captioned by the end of the year.

That's great, but in 2018 deaf viewers started tweeting about another problem: Netflix captioning was so bad that it ruined entire shows. It really started when one subscriber tweeted about how horrible the captions for Queer Eye were, including altering speech, bleeping profanity, and just leaving out huge chunks of dialogue. The community got some serious support from Queer Eye personality Karamo Brown, who spoke up in favor of making sure Netflix gives all subscribers the same experience (via The Telegraph).

Netflix responded with promises to investigate and to do better in the future, but The Guardian says their poor job at closed captioning has become something of a poster child for the need to change media accessibility laws. We'll just have to wait and see.

Prices are going up, and you're getting fewer choices

Price hikes are the way of the world, and Netflix is no different. In early 2018, they announced prices were going to be going up again, and while that got people grumbling, it also had consumers digging a little deeper into their wallets. USA Today reported it's definitely not going to be the last time customers see their rates increase, but here's the kicker: You're getting fewer choices for that higher rate.

In 2016, Quartz took a look at just how much Netflix's library was shrinking. They found that compared to 2014, there were a third fewer titles available. That's a huge nosedive and at the time, they had 6,500 movies and 1,600 TV shows in their library. Fast-forward to 2018, and Cinema Blend says the numbers were still shrinking. Available movies had dropped to 4,010, all while Netflix was promising more original content and Disney began investigating its own streaming service instead of contracting with Netflix. Bottom line? Netflix is charging you more and giving you less.

The Crown's pay gap scandal

If you think the movement to standardize wages and treatment between men and women might have had a positive impact on Netflix's policies, you'd be wrong in at least one high-profile case. In 2018, The Guardian reported that Claire Foy, the lead in Netflix's The Crown, was paid a heck of a lot less than costar Matt Smith. They later reported that after the outrage, Foy was awarded back pay to the tune of $274,000 to make up for the extreme difference in wages. Why the difference? Entertainment Weekly got word that Left Bank Pictures claimed the pay difference was due the weight Smith's name brought to the production — the ex-Doctor Who lead was hugely popular, after all.

But that's not the only wage negotiation misstep Netflix has been accused of taking. Also in 2018, Mo'Nique asked her fans to boycott Netflix over their pay scheme. While she was offered a still-impressive $500,000 for her comedy special, that was mere pocket change compared to Amy Schumer's $11 million (ultimately negotiated to $13 million, Engadget reports) and Dave Chappelle's $20 million. You might argue about name recognition, but Wanda Sykes later added her voice, saying she was offered half what Mo'Nique was for her own special. That brought up more questions than answers. However, Netflix had previously said they pay based on the historical performance of a comedian's work. Legit, or no?

The creepy ways they encourage binge-watching

Netflix invented binge-watching, and they pay a staggering amount of money to make sure they can keep all episodes of some shows available just for you. While some other streaming services restrict their available content to just the most recent five episodes, Vulture says Netflix is known for forking over as much as $750,000 per episode for some of their biggest shows. (Think Mad Men and Breaking Bad.)

Not only are they willing to spend an ungodly amount of money to keep feeding you content to binge, they're even trying to get kids hooked on bingeing in the creepiest way possible: by offering them collectible patches.

Netflix started testing the program in March 2018, and it'll look familiar to anyone who's spent hundreds of hours of their life trying to get that last fishing achievement in Elder Scrolls. Kids are awarded certain badges for watching certain shows, and according to London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone (via The Telegraph), it's potentially dangerous. "It's not clear that their innovation is in children's best interests," she noted. Some parents agreed, condemning Netflix for making it even harder to unglue their kids from the television and go outside. And for what? A digital patch? There's not even any new content to be unlocked, but we all know that doesn't matter. It's a patch, and everyone wants it.

Netflix depends on pirating websites to tell them what shows to get

We've all experienced this crushing disappointment of modern society: After getting all comfortable on the couch with a nice cup of tea or a bottle of beer, we open up Netflix only to find the movie we want to watch … isn't streaming. It's the worst! Some people find something else; some people go to their favorite pirate websites and watch it anyway.

In 2013, it was reported that Netflix was milking the piracy cash cow. Instead of working against pirating websites (which, to be fair, is not at all their job) they developed a clever plan. To find out which movies and TV shows they should acquire a license to, Netflix would monitor the traffic on pirating sites and takes notes of which shows are getting stolen most frequently, turning them into the new content on Netflix. This is Netflix's ace in the hole — they'll always have the style of content that's most popular on the internet.

This also explains why the content on Netflix randomly changes sometimes. When new stuff drops, there are always the things you expect (new Marvel movies, Transformer 14, etc.), along with a bunch of seemingly random movies and TV shows. That content may be hot on pirating sites, and Netflix is trying to get a piece of that metaphorical booty. It's in an ethical grey area, but nobody really cares, as long as they constantly get rad new content.

Netflix intentionally shipped DVDs faster to certain renters

Those who rented DVDs from Netflix (or who still do!) know the pain when a movie would randomly take just forever to show up. There's a reason for that delay: Netflix intentionally messes around with DVD shipping times, making it take longer for those who rent more.

Known as throttling, the technique is super-controversial. Even though everyone is paying the same price for the service, Netflix will ship the DVDs to less-frequent-renters quicker. Since Netflix fees are a fixed rate, people who rent all the time cost the company more money in shipping and handling. By slowing the DVD consumption of these renters, the company balances out its operating costs. It's also designed to keep new customers paying by providing A+ service but can aggravate long-time customers who find their DVDs suddenly showing up at a snail's pace.

Nobody knows if Netflix still engages in throttling, since the only way to confirm it is to spend three weeks waiting for your copy of Eat, Pray, Love. That said, there's no reason for them to stop, especially since nobody really pays attention to the DVD side of their business any more. This is especially true after it was revealed that Netflix slowed down streaming rates for certain wireless customers so they didn't exceed their data limit. At least that time it was for the customer's benefits. The DVD throttling is just a jerk move.

Daredevil was initially impossible to watch for blind people

Enjoying TV and movies as a blind person is different. Sure, blind people can hear the show, but when the action is entirely visual, it's impossible to know what's going on. A lot of movies and TV shows will have a special audio track attached to them that describes what's happening on screen. Netflix is notorious for omitting this feature, infuriating the blind community, who may be blind but are still regular humans who just want to watch Netflix.

The frustration reached fever pitch when Netflix released Daredevil in 2015. Since the titular hero is blind, the blind community assumed Netflix would take the opportunity to include blind accessibility. Nope. They completely ignored it. Out of all the shows on Netflix, you'd think this would be the one accessible to blind people.

Netflix responded after the outrage, saying they were on the adding-audio-descriptions bandwagon. Even then, they were laughably slow at doing so, taking months to get it working. All the while, they blamed the makers of the shows, which is a weird excuse when talking about a Netflix original. Eventually, they added audio descriptions, but it's still baffling they didn't do it before Season 1. What's next, a show about a deaf guy without subtitles?

Binge watching is terrible for your health

This might destroy your worldview, but binge watching is absolutely terrible for your health. It's not just one or two aspects — bingeing Netflix is a wrecking ball in human heads and bodies, causing all sorts of issues.

Studies show that binge watching can increase chances of mental health issues, causing an addiction to form and making viewers antisocial. Binge watching also eats up a ton of concentrated time we could use for other activities that could improve our lives. Shockingly, binge watching also makes us enjoy a show less. We become accustomed to the show and our enjoyment of it decreases, just like a new car gets less exciting the more we drive it. The novelty of the experience falls apart, leaving us in a pit of TV despair.

And it's not just affecting our brains. Binge watching also wrecks our bodies, causing an increased risk of cancer and chronic diseases that comes from a sedentary Netflix lifestyle. No matter how many episodes of Gray's Anatomy you watch, the health benefits just do not exist. Adding it all up, there's an ugly truth: Netflix may be killing us.

They might be hyper-targeting based on what you look like

In 2018, Charm City podcast creator Stacia L. Brown started tweeting about something strange she noticed about her Netflix recommendations. It started with the thumbnail for the movie Like Father, which stars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer. For her, the promo showed two black actors — Blaire Brooks and Leonard Ouzts — who, she noted, had around 20 lines between the two of them.

That led her to one frightening conclusion: Netflix was using racial profiling to tailor misleading ads toward her based on her race and what they thought would make her watch a movie.

Netflix responded with a generic sort of statement, clarifying that they didn't collect information on their users' race, ethnicity, or gender, so they weren't profiling. But Wired notes that they do base recommendations on past viewing habits, and those viewing habits are based on very personal preferences that tend to reveal a lot. According to a tweet by Princeton professor Arvind Narayanan, "If you personalize based on viewing history, targeting by race/gender/ethnicity is a natural emergent effect."

When they go one step further and use that viewing data to show clearly misleading artwork for movies — like the thumbnail that popped up for Brown — it becomes pretty obvious what they're doing, and it's made a lot of people uncomfortable.

It's a cutthroat environment

Working for Netflix might seem like a bit of a dream gig, especially considering employees are largely left on their own and CEO Reed Hastings (pictured) has even said there's technically nothing keeping employees from just binge-watching shows all day if that's what they want to do. But dig a little deeper and it quickly becomes clear that Netflix's strange corporate culture is more cult than comfortable.

Culture is a huge buzzword at Netflix, and Hastings says about half of any interview is determining if a potential candidate will fit into their culture. Sure, people need relevant experience, but they're also signing up to work for a company that promotes "freedom and responsibility." He adds that no one tells any employee what their specific duties are, and they're sort of left on their own to figure out how to best "move the business forward." Anyone who doesn't have a definite and positive impact on the business is out the door.

Sounds challenging! When the Wall Street Journal talked to 70 past and present employees, they called the Netflix culture "ruthless, demoralizing, and transparent to the point of dysfunctional." With no clearly outlined goals and continued employment that hinges on concrete productivity, it's no wonder it's fostered a relentless, cutthroat environment. And that's maybe how the company likes it? During one meeting, a public-relations exec admitted he feared being fired every day. VP of publicity Karen Barragan reportedly responded: "Good, because fear drives you."

The keeper test

Netflix has a very, very strange way of deciding when some people should be fired, and it's called the keeper test. According to Bloomberg, it was developed in 2004 by the company's original head of human relations, Patty McCord. She and CEO Reed Hastings put together the missive that outlined what would become Netflix's corporate culture, and part of that was only keeping "highly effective people." That's fine — it's what every business wants — but how they decide on someone's effectiveness is downright strange.

McCord promoted the idea of managers and execs looking at each one of their employees and asking themselves that if that position were open, would they want that person to be there? If the answer was "no," they were fired. One former Netflix employee told the Wall Street Journal that it led to one constant thought: "How do I know if I'm about to be fired?"

The idea has changed a bit since McCord pitched it, and it's now a matter of managers asking themselves whether they would fight to keep an employee on their team — hence, the name. If the answer is "no," that's when they're fired. In a bizarrely appropriate footnote, McCord herself was fired by Hastings when she failed the keeper test in 2011.

There's a culture of public shaming

In most places, employees can expect to be reprimanded and reviewed behind closed doors. At Netflix, though, it's done out in the open. They use a tool called 360, and employees are expected to provide feedback and criticism for each other at least once a year. Anyone can review anyone else, and there are also regular dinners and lunches where team members gather for what they call "real-time 360." One by one, team members provide immediate and direct criticism about their coworkers in a weird, round-table discussion. Think that sounds incredibly uncomfortable and counterproductive? Former talent exec Brandon Welch told the Wall Street Journal it absolutely was, calling it "intense and awkward."

Then there are the firing postmortems. Whenever an employee is fired, their team members are gathered together for a dissection of everything they did wrong. Former VP Sean Carey was told to attend his own postmortem, which was held in front of about 50 people who had worked for him. While he said it "was certainly awkward for some," he also said it felt beneficial in the end. The idea is to make the transition easier for employees, but ex-product designer Jibran Kutik noted, "that can definitely turn into a pile-on."

Firing anyone, anytime, for anything

Netflix employees have been fired for all kinds of uncomfortable reasons. The practice is so odd that the Wall Street Journal noted they've run afoul of some international laws that make it difficult to fire someone without a very good reason. When Netflix opened an office in Singapore, employees said they were reminded of North Korean culture.

Some have been fired for not upholding their policy of 100 percent transparency, like former CFO David Burt. The official line was he was "not being forthright with us around a major employee issue," while insiders who knew what was going on specified he had withheld information about an employee's medical condition, opting to keep that a private matter.

Then there's former Chief Talent Officer Tawni Nazario-Cranz, who suddenly had a Monday morning meeting penciled into her schedule. Chief marketing officer Kelly Bennett stopped by her hotel room, fired her for not being a "cultural fit," and literally sent her packing. She says when she asked what she could have done differently, the answer was a cold one: She should have fired one of her team members sooner. Not being a "cultural fit" is, some say, a massive offense, and employees say one sign someone's not going to last long is not using Netflix lingo. "Sunshining," for example, is holding a public transparency meeting, talking about your "north star" is a reference to your goals, and talking about someone's "meme" is a reference to how their bosses currently feel about them.

Wait, that looks familiar...

What are the chances of watching something awesome, getting a few episodes in, and thinking, "Wait … that's mine!" Well, they're not zero.

In 2018, the Satanic Temple settled a lawsuit they filed against Netflix after seeing a statue that looked pretty darn close to their iconic Baphomet image being used in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. CNN says they settled the lawsuit amicably, but Temple head Lucien Greaves definitely didn't pull any punches when he called out the show for using their imagery "to promote their asinine Satanic Panic fiction." 

It's not the only time Netflix has gotten into some hot water over copyrights. In 2015, they got bogged down in a ton of copyright and international law issues surrounding a dubbed version of the Italian film Bicycle Thief (via the Hollywood Reporter). The film was free, but the subtitles were not. In 2017, they were back in court for — the lawsuit claims — lifting the title and plot of the film Burning Sands from a book of the same name, with no acknowledgement to the author (via the Hollywood Reporter). And in 2018, the Seattle Times reported that a photographer was going after Netflix for using his work without permission in Stranger Things and How It Ends. Shady? Absolutely.