Cable Industry Doesn’t Understand Net Neutrality, Wants Netflix Investigated For Throttling

The core tenet of “net neutrality” is that Internet service providers — the Comcasts, Time Warner Cables, and Verizons of the world — can’t do anything to block, limit, or expedite users’ access to content. Regardless of whether it’s a video stream or a PDF, these carriers should be delivering the content as quickly as they advertise. And even though the cable industry is currently fighting net neutrality in court, it apparently has no understanding of that basic underlying principle.

Last week, Netflix admitted that it deliberately sent out less-than-perfect streams to Verizon and AT&T customers in order to keep users from going over their data caps.

Whether you approve of this business practice or not, it’s not a violation of net neutrality. But don’t try telling that to the American Cable Association, a trade group representing pay-TV providers in smaller markets and rural regions.

ACA President and CEO Matthew M. Polka accused Netflix of “engaging in covert video throttling to select groups of consumers.”

“Netflix used its immunity from the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules to engage in this practice,” says Polka in a statement. “Netflix has the ability and incentive to engage in this anti-consumer behavior notwithstanding its impact on the virtual cycle that promotes the broadband deployment sustaining Netflix’s business model. In light of this revelation, ACA calls on the FCC to initiate a Notice of Inquiry into the practices of edge providers and how these companies can threaten the openness of the Internet.”

There are two reasons why Netflix’s actions do not constitute throttling.

First, Netflix is not an Internet service provider. The Open Internet Order, which includes the neutrality guidelines, only applies to the carriers of content, not the producers of the content. That may be, in the eyes of Polka and others, unfair, but it’s the fact.

Second, Netflix is free to determine which speeds it sends out its content. True “throttling” of data — as seen in the recently ended war of words between YouTube and T-Mobile — involves the carrier choosing to downgrade content midstream. Not only can that sort of throttling be problematic from a technical perspective, often resulting in a less-than-optimal video, but it also strips both the end-user and the content provider of having any say in the quality of the stream or how much data will be consumed.

As DSL Reports’ Karl Bode writes: “While a customer can stop using an ‘edge provider’ like Netflix whose policies they don’t agree with, that’s often not an option when it comes to broadband providers. Were there more broadband competition, we wouldn’t technically need net neutrality rules.”

Matt Woods of Free Press uses a movie theater analogy to explain why Netflix isn’t violating net neutrality.

If a local theater is showing films at a cruddy quality, it’s probably not a good thing for the theater’s customers, especially if people don’t know they will see a less-than-pristine picture going in, but “it’s not the same kind of problem as someone blocking the roads to the theater to force people to go to a different movie house.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that the cable industry has tried to play “gotcha!” regarding recent pro-consumer actions taken by the FCC.

Earlier this month, the hilariously named Future of TV Coalition — a fake grassroots group set up to spread fictions about set-top box reform and protect the industry’s $20 billion annual revenue stream of rental fees — tried to claim that FCC Chair Tom Wheeler had said that the Google Chromecast was already a substitute for the set-top box, when that is far from the truth.