FCC Commissioner Pai Continues His Strange, Somewhat Incoherent Assault On Netflix
from the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about dept
Netflix’s vocal support of Title II, criticism of usage caps and, most recently, its complaints about the use of interconnection as an anti-competitive weapon have made the company policy enemy number one among the nation’s biggest ISPs. As part of an attempt to undermine Netflix, these ISPs (with Comcast leading the charge) have been using their lobbyists, fauxcademics, and various policy folk to try and portray the streaming company as a dirty freeloader and a nasty company that is really the one to blame for most of the Internet’s problems.
Joining this chorus last month was FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who in a bizarre letter to Netflix (pdf) tried to paint Netflix as a hypocrite on net neutrality. To accomplish this, Pai pretended (one hopes) he didn’t know what a content delivery network (CDN) was, and that Netflix’s creation of its own CDN is somehow the same thing as creating Internet “fast lanes.” Pai also oddly tried to claim that because Netflix refused to join a new streaming video coalition spearheaded by Netflix critics like Comcast and Charter — that this was somehow proof positive that Netflix was against “Internet openness.”
Pai’s sudden interest in streaming video fairness was particularly strange coming from a former Verizon regulatory lawyer turned FCC Commissioner who repeatedly turns a blind eye to broadband industry competition and consolidation woes. Still, Netflix played along, and in both a letter and during personal visits explained to Pai that the company’s Open Connect CDN isn’t a “fast lane,” is free to use, and its peering locations, guidelines, hardware design and open source software components are all pretty plainly documented.
Trying to get more mileage out of his attack, Pai is now pretending that Netflix “refused” to answer many of his questions. In a press release (pdf) issued by the Commissioner, Pai again insists that Netflix is somehow “undermining the development of open standards for Internet video.” His evidence? Again, it’s the fact that Netflix runs its own “Open Connect” CDN, and encrypts certain CDN URL structures to help protect consumer streaming behavior from third-party observation. This is, Pai insists, proof positive that Netflix has been incredibly naughty:
“In order to test the validity of this assertion, I then asked Netflix to respond to the allegation that it had rolled out its new encryption protocols by first targeting those ISPs that had installed open caching appliances. The company assured me that this was not true and agreed to submit information after our meeting that would disprove this charge.
One month later, that commitment remains unfulfilled. When my office reached out to Netflix for the information (in particular, which ISPs were targeted on which dates), the company refused to turn it over. I am disappointed and perplexed by this decision. If Netflix did not target those ISPs using open caching, why would it withhold information that would disprove this allegation? I hope that the company will reconsider its position and supply the facts that would resolve this matter once and for all.”
Pai forgets to note that Netflix’s “Open Connect” CDN is completely free, and benefits both Netflix and ISPs alike by making streaming more efficient. He also somehow omits to mention that incumbent ISPs refused to sign on to this CDN, something Netflix and Level3 have claimed was part of a plan to force Netflix to pay steep new interconnection fees (this is all currently being investigated by Pai’s colleagues at the FCC). While I’ve noted that Netflix absolutely needs to be more transparent regarding the interconnection feud, its transparency practices are a far cry from the kind of obfuscation incumbent ISPs have been engaging in for years (which you’ll note Pai has spent the lion’s share of his tenure turning a blind eye to).
Basically, Pai is conflating a bunch of issues, ignoring a bunch of others, and demanding a response to inquiries that can’t really be answered because they don’t make any coherent sense. In his closing paragraph, Pai makes it clear he’s not looking for anyone to do anything about Netflix’s villainy, he just basically wanted to make Netflix look stupid with a “gotcha” that isn’t much of a gotcha at all:
“To be clear, I do not favor additional FCC regulation in this area. However, if a company asks the FCC to impose public utility-style regulation on every broadband provider in the country in the name of preserving the open Internet but then selectively targets open video standards to secure a competitive advantage over its rivals, it should be called to account.”
Netflix has since responded stating it answered all of Pai’s questions and that Pai “appears to be targeting us because he disagrees with our Open Internet advocacy, not because of our efforts to protect member privacy.” Pai apparently hoped that his criticisms would somehow undermine the credibility of a Title II supporter, but in the process he only really succeeds at making a public official look petty, incompetent, or a delicate combination of both.