Netflix is probably one of your favorite places to binge-watch new TV shows, stream your favorite movies, or discover new-to-you content in your favorite genres. So you may have been a little surprised to hear about the uproar over Netflix’s policies, following its recent admission that it’s been slowing down streaming speeds in order to help users avoid exceeding the limit on their mobile data plans. Ryan Knutson and Shalini Ramachandran reported for The Wall Street Journal that AT&T and Verizon had been on the defensive after accusations that they were throttling Netflix videos, but Netflix said that it has been lowering the quality of its video for customers streaming its content on AT&T and Verizon’s networks.
For more than five years, the company has limited its video speeds to 600 kilobits per second for customers of most wireless carriers around the globe, a policy it describes as “an effort to protect our members from overage charges when they exceed mobile data caps” and a move to strike “a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers.”
However, Netflix told the Journal that it doesn’t limit its video quality at T-Mobile and Sprint, because “historically those two companies have had more consumer-friendly policies.” When customers exceed their data limits on Sprint or T-Mobile, the carriers usually slow their data speeds instead of charging overage fees. Knutson and Ramachandran note that the fact that Netflix, not mobile carriers, is responsible for the lowered video quality “illustrates the dilemma mobile-app makers face with data caps.”
The majority of traffic on wireless networks is video, so providers have to balance video quality against data consumption. Netflix says that watching just two hours of HD video on its app would consume up to 6GB of data — which is an entire month’s allowance under Verizon’s $80-per-month plan. Netflix explains that its slowing of video streams “hasn’t been an issue for our members,” both because many people worry about exceeding their mobile data caps and because users don’t need the same resolution on their phones as they do on a large-screen TV.
Netflix has been an outspoken and sometimes opportunistic supporter of net neutrality and its principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. As Nick Statt reports for The Verge, the company has used the stances of companies like Comcast and Verizon to position itself as a champion of equal access to the Internet, as well as a victim of corporations that want to charge it additional money for direct connections to their networks. Netflix has resisted the idea that it should compensate broadband providers or mobile carriers for the data that its customers use, and it’s pointed out signs of discrimination on the part of carriers. But as the Journal notes, the net neutrality rules apply to Internet providers, but not to content companies like Netflix.
Noah Kulwin reports for Re/Code that while lots of people are mad at Netflix, “that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” Angry Netflix customers have accused Netflix of hypocrisy for fighting on the side of net neutrality advocates while reducing the streaming quality of its own content. While ISPs like Comcast and wireless networks like Verizon and T-Mobile have experimented with zero-rated services — which don’t charge customers for using data on preferred apps — are considered opponents of net neutrality. People have considered Netflix one of the “good guys,” and the popular assessment of Netflix’s stance on net neutrality shouldn’t really change.
That’s because Netflix’s choice to slow down speeds doesn’t actually violate the principles of net neutrality. As Kulwin points out, Netflix is discriminating against its own content, “not against other video that is being sent through metaphorical pipes that it operates.” Kulwin notes that you could argue that Netflix is “doing the ISPs’s dirty work for them, hiding how tough it is to stream HD mobile video without incurring insane data charges and masking just how much those ISPs are ripping off consumers.” It’s also possible that this is a way for Netflix to urge its users to lobby their wireless carriers to get Netflix onto zero-rated services.
But either way, Netflix isn’t suddenly violating the principles of net neutrality. Its policies are about making sure that people watch more content on its platform, without getting charged expensive overage fees to do so. Think of it this way: if watching your favorite shows on Netflix routinely causes you to go over your data limit, you’re probably going to stop watching those shows on your smartphone. So if Netflix wants you to continue watching its content on your mobile device, it only makes sense for it to enable you to watch more content while using less data.
Customers who object less on the grounds of net neutrality arguments and more on the principle that users should be able to control their own usage will be interested to know that the company is exploring “new ways to give members more control in choosing video quality.” It’s developing a “data saver” tool that it will roll out in May to enable consumers to “stream more video under a smaller data plan, or increase their video quality if they have a higher data plan.”