Netflix does damage to net neutrality cause

Company’s failure to disclose wireless throttling raises questions over its motivations.

netflix, netflix blocking vpns, net neutrality cause

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Netflix dropped a pretty big bombshell late last week when it admitted to the Wall Street Journal it had been slowing down video streams for certain U.S. wireless subscribers.

AT&T and Verizon customers have been capped for more than five years at 600 kilobits per second, much slower than what many LTE networks are capable of, according to the newspaper.

The slower streams were ostensibly benevolent in nature – Netflix wanted to keep subscribers from quickly blowing through their monthly data caps. At full speeds, they could easily use up their monthly allotments.

Subscribers at rivals Sprint and T-Mobile, where data limits are typically greater, weren’t similarly throttled.

“It’s about striking a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers,” the company said in a blog post on Thursday.

Netflix has been one of the most vocal supporters of net neutrality, or the principle that internet service providers generally shouldn’t interfere with the traffic that runs over their networks. The company was one of the chief instigators in getting new laws put into place last year in the United States that prevent ISPs from doing just that.

Net neutrality opponents were rubbing their hands in glee last week at the company’s apparent hypocrisy, where it was now guilty of engaging in the same bad activity as some of the big internet providers it had previously clashed with.

Netflix’s erstwhile net neutrality allies, however, don’t believe the company is actually violating net neutrality, either in spirit or in law.

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, for one, thinks there’s a difference between ISPs devoting different speeds to different internet services or websites and those same services and websites choosing their own bandwidth outputs.

Many websites, after all, optimize their content to load more quickly on mobile phones than on desktops.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation seconds that view. There’s no violation since it’s the content provider itself that has decided to slow things down, and not the ISP.

“While we’re disappointed to hear that Netflix has been throttling its videos for AT&T and Verizon customers, I think it’s important to realize that this wasn’t a violation of net neutrality, since it was the edge provider itself who made the decision to throttle its own traffic,” a spokesperson told InsideSources.

Whatever the case, all sides seem to agree that Netflix’s biggest crime is not disclosing what it was doing to anyone. The company could find itself offside Federal Trade Commission rules for doing so, but more importantly, it will likely have a trust problem with customers, competitors and policy makers.

Verizon and AT&T customers may be wondering why they weren’t informed that their streams were being slowed, and why they weren’t given a choice to do so themselves. After all, it’s their data connection and caps to do with as they please – which is the central argument of net neutrality, and why Netflix’s actions have the stink of hypocrisy to them.

Wireless carriers, meanwhile, now have something to hold over Netflix’s figurative head in any future disputes. The company hasn’t held back from criticizing internet providers and wireless companies in the past, and indeed regularly publishes ISP speed rankings. Those results are certainly more suspect now.

Regulators and other policy makers also have greater reason to doubt Netflix. So far, the company hasn’t said why it failed to disclose the throttling for so long, leaving observers to guess at its motives. Was the company purposely trying to make ISPs and wireless carriers look bad in order to get the net neutrality rules it wanted? It sure looks that way.

The disclosure also comes at an inopportune time given Netflix’s recent crackdown on virtual private networks and the blowback that’s generating.

The company insists it is blocking subscribers from accessing its libraries in different countries after years of turning a blind eye because of requests from copyright holders, but remains silent on why it has chosen to target VPNs.

Critics say blocking such tools, which help protect users’ privacy online, is unnecessary when the company could simply use customer billing information to limit access instead.

On both fronts, Netflix is showing itself to be exceptionally opportunistic, which isn’t going to do net neutrality supporters any good in the long run. Not only will the company’s own positions on net neutrality come under deeper scrutiny in the future, so too will those of any other businesses that want take up the cause down the road.

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