Netflix’s stunning admission that, for five years, it reduced the video speeds of customers of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless — while not doing so for customers of Sprint and T-Mobile — is little short of breathtaking. It was an exercise in hypocrisy to claim that broadband providers were degrading the quality of its video when, in fact, Netflix — without notifying its customers — was doing precisely that.
Recall the history here to understand why Netflix’s actions were so brazen and deserving of governmental review. Traditionally, peering agreements among content networks and last-mile Internet-service providers (ISPs) were never regulated, but were always negotiated between private parties.
For Netflix, arm’s-length negotiations posed a problem, because as the share of total bandwidth taken by its content grew (up to 37% at peak hours, according to one survey in March of 2015), its position became ever more untenable. It wanted ISPs to build more bandwidth to consumers for Netflx’s use, but it didn’t want to help pay for that. It didn’t want its own business model constrained.
SHIFTING THE COST BURDEN
Instead, Netflix tried to shift the real costs of its service onto others — the local network operators. In fact, it wanted “free interconnection” with the ISPs shouldering all of the costs of the upgrades required to carry the ever-growing volume of Netflix traffic. Then, as the flood of Netflix content caused consumers to experience problems with video quality, Netflix was quick to put the blame on the ISPs.
Also remember that Netflix was a driving force in advocating for network neutrality. The company’s CEO, Reed Hastings, pushed first against Comcast and then against ISPs more generally, accusing them of “purposeful congestion” and pushed free interconnection for Netflix’s services. In a sharp departure from an unbroken history of peering agreements being negotiated by private parties through which the network responsible for delivering a greater proportion of traffic to the other network would bear the resulting cost, he demanded that “they (ISPs) must provide sufficient access to their network without charge.”
Hastings blamed video quality problems on a lack of interconnectivity, even as — without disclosure — Netflix itself was slowing down video. Then, while continuing to complain about video quality degradation, the company persistently and successfully urged the Federal Communications Commission to include regulatory oversight over interconnection for the first time as an aspect of the net-neutrality rulemaking. That unprecedented assertion of authority is now a central feature of the litigation presently pending on the net-neutrality order.
ISPs, whether cable, wired telco or mobile, weren’t throttling or slowing Netflix video. Netflix was. This fact matters for yet another reason. One of the central responsibilities imposed by the net-neutrality order on broadband providers is transparency in network management practices. It must be noted that while being one of the strongest advocates of the FCC using last-century common-carrier rules to impose net neutrality obligations on the ISPs, the company was simultaneously secretly violating one of the core net-neutrality principles, the necessity of being transparent in its network management practices. The practice of degrading video for customers without notice was anything but transparent.
A MATTER OF MATH
Network-management practices that deliver fast, reliable Internet content rely not on blog posts and banging drums for government action, but on sound engineering and sound mathematics. The French writer Stendahl wrote, “Mathematics allows for no hypocrisy and no vagueness.” Nor should legal proceedings. Now that Netflix’s actions are publicly known, there is a clear path forward.
The Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction over unfair trade practices in the Internet ecosystem. Advertising one service, such as level of video quality, while delivering a lesser service falls within the ambit of an unfair trade practice. Did Netflix advertise a service it failed to deliver? Were its conduct and its disclosures to customers consistent with fair trade practice?
Congressional committees may also legitimately ask about the circumstances that led the FCC to take the unprecedented step of departing from voluntary peering arrangements and asserting regulatory authority over interconnection between networks. In both venues it’s timely to ask some serious questions regarding Netflix’s behavior. These proceedings could even become a new Netflix hit, a true-life House of Cards.
Former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) was a House member for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet.