Netflix Wants You to Know Who Should Be Blamed for Slow Videos

Netflix has started encouraging its customers to blame their internet service providers for substandard performance.

National Journal
Zachary M. Seward, Quartz
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Zachary M. Seward, Quartz
June 4, 2014, 7:04 p.m.

When on­line video stut­ters, buf­fers, or won’t play al­to­geth­er, people get ir­rit­ated — and Net­flix has star­ted en­cour­aging its cus­tom­ers to blame their in­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders for the sub­stand­ard per­form­ance.

The screen­shot above was cap­tured by Yuri Vic­tor, a de­sign­er at Vox Me­dia, as he tried to watch Net­flix video on an Apple com­puter. His in­ter­net pro­vider is Ve­r­i­zon FiOS, a fiber-op­tic net­work that prom­ises ex­cep­tion­ally high speeds. Oth­ers have re­cently seen a sim­il­ar mes­sage while us­ing AT&T’s net­work.

Re­spons­ib­il­ity for the qual­ity of stream­ing video is at the crux of cur­rent de­bates over in­ter­net reg­u­la­tion. Net­flix, which ac­counts for more than a third of all traffic head­ing in­to Amer­ic­an homes at peak hours, would like to put more of the onus on in­ter­net pro­viders. “The Ve­r­i­zon net­work is crowded right now” is a pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paign in the form of an er­ror mes­sage.

Net­flix down­load speeds in the US had de­teri­or­ated at the end of last year as its con­nec­tions with some in­ter­net pro­viders be­came clogged. The pro­viders said that was Net­flix’s fault for send­ing an ever-in­creas­ing amount of data across their net­works. Net­flix dis­agreed, but in Feb­ru­ary, it struck a deal to pay Com­cast, the lead­ing US in­ter­net pro­vider, for a more dir­ect line to cus­tom­ers. Speeds im­me­di­ately im­proved, as HBO’s John Oliv­er noted in his re­cent vir­al rant over net neut­ral­ity. Net­flix struck a sim­il­ar deal with Ve­r­i­zon in April.

But Net­flix and oth­er stream­ing video ser­vices, like Google’s You­Tube, say in­ter­net pro­viders shouldn’t be able to cut those kinds of deals. US reg­u­lat­ors are cur­rently weigh­ing the is­sue.

In ad­di­tion to lob­by­ing the gov­ern­ment, in­ter­net video com­pan­ies have made a point of pub­li­ciz­ing how their ser­vices per­form on vari­ous net­works. Net­flix pub­lishes such data for in­ter­net pro­viders in 20 coun­tries. Google re­cently star­ted do­ing the same in the US and Canada, la­beling some in­ter­net pro­viders as “You­Tube HD Veri­fied” and oth­ers, not-so-much. Net­flix has vowed to “en­cour­age our mem­bers to de­mand the open In­ter­net they are pay­ing their ISP to de­liv­er.”

Amer­ic­ans gen­er­ally dis­like their in­ter­net pro­viders and are more sym­path­et­ic to com­pan­ies like Net­flix. Still, when stream­ing video doesn’t work like it should, people may be equally frus­trated at all parties in­volved. Tom Wheel­er, chair­man of the US Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion (and former cable in­dustry lob­by­ist), re­cently re­called watch­ing Net­flix in bed with his wife, when the feed began to buf­fer. “You’re chair­man of the FCC,” she said to him. “Why is this hap­pen­ing?

Next time it hap­pens, Net­flix has an an­swer for her.

Up­date (2:40pm EDT): In a blog post, Ve­r­i­zon says Net­flix’s ac­cus­at­ory er­ror mes­sage “is not only in­ac­cur­ate, it is de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing.” Ve­r­i­zon’s site isn’t cur­rently work­ing, though, so here’s the full text:

Re­ports from this morn­ing have sug­ges­ted that Net­flix is en­ga­ging in a PR stunt in an at­tempt to shift blame to ISPs for the buf­fer­ing that some of its cus­tom­ers may be ex­per­i­en­cing. Ac­cord­ing to one journ­al­ist’s tweet from last night, Net­flix is dis­play­ing a mes­sage on the screen for users who ex­per­i­ence buf­fer­ing which says: “The Ve­r­i­zon net­work is crowded right now.”

This claim is not only in­ac­cur­ate, it is de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing.

The source of the prob­lem is al­most cer­tainly NOT con­ges­tion in Ve­r­i­zon’s net­work. In­stead, the prob­lem is most likely con­ges­tion on the con­nec­tion that Net­flix has chosen to use to reach Ve­r­i­zon’s net­work. Of course, Net­flix is solely re­spons­ible for choos­ing how their traffic is routed in­to any ISP’s net­work.

Some re­port­ers seem to have bought in­to Net­flix’s claims without ques­tion, and some have con­flated this dis­pute with net neut­ral­ity.  For those look­ing for more care­ful ana­lys­is, however, there is plenty of good ma­ter­i­al out there by tech­nic­al ex­perts (such as in­dustry ana­lyst Dan Ray­burn) that set the re­cord straight. One of the best stor­ies is an in­form­at­ive piece by Mag­gie Rear­don on CNET, which ex­plains what is really go­ing on. (And of course, there is my own blog post from last sum­mer when this story first star­ted ap­pear­ing.)

It is sad that Net­flix is will­ing to de­lib­er­ately mis­lead its cus­tom­ers so they can be used as pawns in busi­ness ne­go­ti­ations and reg­u­lat­ory pro­ceed­ings.

It would be more ac­cur­ate for Net­flix’s mes­sage screen to say: “The path that we have chosen to reach Ve­r­i­zon’s net­work is crowded right now.”

However, that would high­light their re­spons­ib­il­ity for the prob­lem.

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