Netflix Patiently Explains To FCC Commissioner Pai That CDNs Are Perfectly Normal, Not Diabolical 'Fast Lanes'

from the please-take-my-faux-outrage-seriously dept

We’ve been noting lately how a concerted effort is afoot by big broadband ISPs, their think tanks, and some sector analysts to vilify Netflix because of the company’s outspoken positions on usage caps, broadband competition and most recently interconnection and Title II. As such, you might have noticed the media has seen a noted spike in studies, reports and analysis declaring that ISPs are simply misunderstood. These studies will all inform you that if you look at the data in just the right way — you’ll realize that Netflix is a really bad guy and a dirty freeloader — and it’s Comcast, Verizon and AT&T that really have your best interests at heart.

This new push to discredit Netflix culminated recently with a bizarre letter (pdf) sent to Netflix by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. In the letter, Pai proclaims he was “surprised to learn” that Netflix was being hypocritical and nefarious on net neutrality because it: (a) refused to join a new streaming video coalition spearheaded by Comcast and Netflix critics; and (b) operates a content delivery network (CDN). As we noted at the time, both allegations are more than a little stupid. Pai’s allegations that Netflix’s Open Connect CDN constitutes an unfair “fast lane” was particularly silly, since CDNs benefit consumers, ISPs and content companies alike.

In a response letter to Pai (pdf) sent last week, Netflix has to carefully spell out how the company’s free and entirely voluntary CDN, like all CDNs, caches content on the inside edge of the ISP network, making content delivery more efficient for everybody involved:

“Open Connect is not a fast lane. Open Connect does not prioritize Netflix data. Open Connect uses ‘best efforts’ Internet services into and out of its content caches. When an ISP asks Netflix to localize an Open Connect cache within its network, it does not disadvantage other Internet content. To the contrary, Open Connect helps ISPs reduce costs and better manage congestion, which results in a better Internet experience for all end users. Only ISPs can speed up or slow down data that flow over their last mile. When Netflix directly interconnects with an ISP, Netflix data does not travel faster than other Internet content?unless an ISP is artificially constraining capacity to other data sources.”

This will, of course, result in the usual complaints about how government employees don’t understand tech, but as a former regulatory lawyer for Verizon, Pai knows full well what a CDN is and that it doesn’t violate neutrality. He’s just apparently helping the industry’s Netflix vilification effort, and feeding the partisan neutrality grist mill some calorie-free angst nuggets. Again, none of this is to say that Netflix doesn’t do stupid things, but recent efforts to demonize Netflix by an industry with thirty years of anti-competitive behavior under its belt are getting more than a little obnoxious.

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Comments on “Netflix Patiently Explains To FCC Commissioner Pai That CDNs Are Perfectly Normal, Not Diabolical 'Fast Lanes'”

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32 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

…as a former regulatory lawyer for Verizon, Pai knows full well what a CDN is and that it doesn’t violate neutrality

I don’t think any regulatory lawyer from Verizon knows what a CDN is. I think the point to be made is that they SHOULD know what CDN is…but we all know they don’t. I think that’s been made pretty obvious from the onset of this debate.

totstroc (profile) says:

A Rose by Any other Name

It seems to me like Pai’s complaint was that Netflix was implementing its own proprietary CDN, rather than participating in development of an open-standards-based CDN, which would (possibly?) leave Netflix in control of if/when/how its content gets CDN-improved delivery (preventing non-Netflix-sanctioned networks from giving netflix-content a performance boost via CDN.)

Granted, the “fast lane” metaphor has to get stretched pretty-much beyond recognition to cover both a proprietary-CDN *and* last-mile packet prioritization, but the conceit that the Internet and the Interstate are all that similar will only get you so far before it falls apart anyway.

That being said, Pai’s concerns seemed fairly clear (“hey, aren’t you guys basically going out and building a different kind of ‘fast lane’ for yourselves by embracing CDNs that only you can create, and only your traffic can benefit from?”), and Netflix’s response seemed pretty clear too (“don’t call it a ‘fast lane’, but yeah, we’re pursuing the CDN solution that we think will work best for Netflix.”)

A fair question might be, “if we want the FCC to ensure a ‘level playing’ field for content creators to get their content delivered to the masses, and regulating last-mile traffic prioritization is a reasonable way to do it, why *shouldn’t* the FCC also jump right in and steer the industry towards a maximally equitable CDN technology?”

(For me, the answer to that last question would be “have you *met* the FCC?!”)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: A Rose by Any other Name

CDNs help, by freeing up capacity on backbone networks for other data, and also reduce the number of central servers needed to deliver the content. Netflix can put servers in central locations, or distribute them in a CDN, while still keeping control over the content that they have licenses to distribute.

totstroc (profile) says:

Re: A Rose by Any other Name

Thinking about it some more, it seems to me that Pai’s implicit position is that “net neutrality” means something more than just “treating all bits equally”, and means something more like “making all content equally accessible”, and that as such, “net neutrality” should address things like CDNs.

I can sort of see the logic there. I mean, it’s not like “treating all bits equally” makes any sense as a policy objective in its own right; it has to be in service of some higher-layer/more-socially-relevant objective (encouraging innovation/free-expression/etc…), and “making all content equally accessible” (that’s my overstated version of it) sounds about as good as anything else.

Personally, I wouldn’t want the FCC weighing in on how CDNs ought to work, or who should deploy them, or where. The market / industry / the Internet (whatever we want to call it) is in the middle of adapting to the relatively recent avalanche of streaming video traffic, and CDNs seem like they’ll play an important role in that. But the FCC stepping in now and making decisions (assuming that this issue gets past the FCC/Netflix pen-pal stage) about what role CDNs will play, and what technical architecture they’ll use reads like exactly the sort of “gub’mint FUBARing emergent technologies” scenario that (my kind of) net-neutrality opponents worry about.

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: Re: A Rose by Any other Name

I was coming here to say much the same thing. The whole concept of what constitutes “net neutrality” is a bit slippery, as was noted on a recent article here. But one of the major complaints against violations of net neutrality is that they lead to an unlevel playing field. If BigCellCompany Video Service gets a last-mile fast lane and Netflix does not, Netflix is at a competitive disadvantage – their services are slower and less reliable than BigCell’s and so less desirable to the customer, all other things being equal. Doesn’t the same apply here? If I start Dan’s Video Service and my video has to traverse the Internet while Netflix has a CDN sitting at the ISP edge, they have a huge advantage over my service in terms of speed and reliability.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A Rose by Any other Name

Then build your own cdn. There’s nothing preventing you from doing so. Netflix did it because they felt it would benefit them and their users and they went a step further making such cdn accessible to anyone. You can also hire other cdns (Akamai, maybe?) to do the job while not having to deal with the infra-structure. None of this puts your packets at a disadvantage that is not due to the laws of physics. Netflix only moved closer to the consumers.

This is very, very different from ISPs deliberately slowing your packets or prioritizing whoever because it got money from them. Netflix is improving their own infra and location to achieve better speeds and reliability with investments, not by paying some sort of ‘levy’ to get VIP treatment.

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 A Rose by Any other Name

Have you dug into how this works at all? The CDNs are “embedded Open Connect Appliances.” The exist ON the ISPs network. That’s what “embedded” means. You say “There’s nothing preventing you from [building your own cdn].” But how likely is BigCellCompany to allow me to install an appliance inside their network?

David says:

I don't even understand the attacks

People make this sound like rocket science.

It’s simple as pie: the Netflix CDN takes Netflix traffic off the Internet backbones. That’s all. It does not make anything faster or slower. It removes the Netflix traffic.

It’s like the ISPs offer super-sanitary swimming pools where the sewage treatment can’t actually keep up with the demand, and Netflix offers to use its own private toilets (given the space) instead of pissing in the water like everybody else. And everybody shouts down Netflix because do they think they are entitled to cleaner water than the rest?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I don't even understand the attacks

It is more like separate sewers for storm water and waste water. But yeah the metaphor works in reverse.

A detention pond that captures storm water to feed it slowly back into the system lessening the load of a storm event to the treatment plant and making the sewers less prone to overflowing.

The CDN server (detention pond) is slowly filled with commonly needed data that it feeds out to local users. The users of other internet services use the network (sanitary sewer) that isn’t overwhelmed by netflix traffic.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Good analogy — because what’s happening is that the NetFlix trucks are delivering the goods at night to be made available to customers during the day — instead of having all those customers get on the road causing congestion attempting to get to the store a city away. After all, there’s really no difference between a “store” and a CDN other than that one stocks real items and the other stocks data. Well, maybe there are a few differences; I can’t get anything I want from the local grocery store for $9/month.

Ninja (profile) says:

So you get to choose whether to get your data from miles and miles away or right from the next door and you are complaining about it. Awesome. And Netflix is even making their CDN open for others to help improve the overall speed and connectivity for everybody while DECREASING interconnection costs for the ISP. All for free. And they are complaining about it. They should consider join the MAFIAA. The pattern of behavior is the exact same.

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