Last year you'll recall that T-Mobile launched its "Binge On" zero rating program, which exempts the biggest video services from the company's usage caps (aka "zero rating"). Net neutrality advocates quickly complained that the practice violated net neutrality, since the very act of giving some companies an advantage automatically disadvantages some others. After T-Mobile spent some time lying about the nature of the program, the EFF came out with a detailed report noting that T-Mobile was just throttling all video files back to 1.5 Mbps, whether the content was being streamed or directly downloaded.
Net neutrality advocates like the EFF argued that the program at the very least should be opt in instead of opt out, concerns that T-mobile continues to ignore. YouTube similarly initially complained about the program and that video partners were being throttled by default. But in a matter of months, Alphabet/Google appears to have completely changed its mind, issuing a new blog post that says it's now partnering with T-Mobile to zero rate Google Play Movies and YouTube content traveling over the T-Mobile network.
According to YouTube, T-Mobile made a number of changes to Binge On that satisfied YouTube's concerns, including new "short codes" that let users more easily opt out. T-Mobile also apparently was willing to listen to YouTube's concerns about throttling partner services by default with no dialogue between companies:
"While T-Mobile has always stated that any video service can join the program at no charge, prior to our discussions, video services were not given a choice about whether their streams would be managed by T-Mobile if they did not join the program. Going forward, any video service meeting traffic-identification requirements will be able to opt-out, and T-Mobile will stop including them in the Binge On program and will no longer modify their video streams. In addition, T-Mobile will now work with video services that wish to optimize their own streams, using an average data rate limit. This allows video services to offer users an improved video experience, even at lower data rates, by taking advantage of innovations such as video compression technology, benefiting T-Mobile, their customers, and video providers.
To be clear it's good that T-Mobile is being slightly more transparent, even though it lied pretty consistently about what it was actually doing in the first place. It's also great that the company is providing better, simpler opt-out tools for consumers (dial #263# to turn Binge on off, and dial #266# to turn it on again). And it's also a major improvement that T-Mobile's letting video service providers opt out, while giving companies more control over precisely how video traffic is managed. The problem is that none of this solves the core problem with zero rating: the horrible precedent set by zero rating in the first place.
The superficial consumer lure of "free data" overshadows the fact that zero rating, no matter how much lipstick you put on it, still puts some companies at a market disadvantage. In a press release announcing YouTube's inclusion, T-Mobile crows that there's now 50 Binge On video partners. But how many video services exist on the Internet? 500? 1000? How many non-profits, educational services, startups, and independents still aren't being whitelisted by T-Mobile's systems? How many even realize they're being put at a market disadvantage to bigger companies?
By opening the door to zero rating a sliver, we've opened the door to fundamentally changing how Internet business works. That's why numerous regulators in India, Japan, The Netherlands and elsewhere have banned zero rating outright. Here in the States, the FCC, wary of hindering usage cap driven "innovation," decided to let the zero rating story play out, addressing anti-competitive behavior on a "case by case basis." But the FCC has failed to act, and that failure has not only resulted in T-mobile's Binge On (potentially bad), but companies like Verizon and Comcast now exempting their own content from caps (immeasurably worse).
Despite its faux-punk-rock consumer friendly rhetoric, T-Mobile has never been a fan of net neutrality, repeatedly coming out against both net neutrality rules and the FCC's Title II push. Google, once a net neutrality champion, has consistently weakened its position on the subject as it realized it too could benefit from a distorted playing field (especially in mobile).
Because users get "free data" doesn't mean zero rating is a good idea. Because YouTube's now happy that it has a little more control, doesn't make zero rating a good idea. Because users and companies can opt out, doesn't negate zero rating's negative impact on the Internet economy. Because all-too-many consumers, analysts and journalists don't really understand what's happening here doesn't make zero rating a good idea. Setting arbitrary usage caps and then letting some companies bypass them aggressively distorts the entire landscape of the Internet. But because so many folks still don't appear to understand this, we're down the zero rating rabbit hole. And it's not really clear if we're ever coming back.
CBS had the perfect opportunity over the extended weekend to show that the company had evolved and was ready to embrace the modern streaming era. CBS had announced that users could watch the Grammy Awards live online on Monday Night -- but only if customers signed up for a trial of CBS' $6 per month "All Access" streaming service. And while not necessarily a bad promotional idea on its surface, it appears that CBS choked completely on the opportunity, with numerous customers reporting that they couldn't even get the stream to start:
Wow. @CBS All Access lasted about 30 seconds before totally crashing. Cool product.
"Some users experienced temporary difficulty accessing the live online feed of the Grammys. Our location services provider had a brief issue verifying user location. That issue has since been resolved and all users are back online,” a CBS Interactive spokesman said."
And while technical glitches happen, this is the same company that has waged war on companies trying to deliver a more innovative, efficient and modern TV viewing experience for decades. This behavior has included suing and whining about Aereo; suing to stop Dish's Hopper ad-skipping technology (and ignoring editorial firewalls over at CNET to hurt said product in the press); whining about Netflix; suing Star Trek fans for expressing their fandom; and constantly threatening to bury over-the-air TV behind the cable paywall unless everybody does exactly what CBS wants.
And indeed, while CBS couldn't get its own streaming service to work, the company's copyright shutdown apparatus worked perfectly well, so that fans of the awards show couldn't watch it anywhere:
So in short, CBS has fought tooth and nail to stop other companies from offering a next-generation viewing experience. And when presented with the opportunity to highlight why CBS should be considered the innovation gold standard, the company tripped on its shoelaces and fell flat on its face. Perhaps CBS should stick to the space in which it's clearly the most innovative: being anti-innovation.
Fisher is well-known in copyright circles and has long advocated for a major reform to copyright to effectively spread a compulsive license to other uses, effectively legalizing file sharing, but with systems in place to still have artists paid. He's detailed versions of this proposal in his book, Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment. That said, this takedown appears to have nothing to do with that whatsoever.
The lecture itself appears to be a part of his online course, CopyrightX, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. Thankfully, on the CopyrightX website, there are downloadable versions of the lectures, so I was able to download and watch the full lecture to see what the takedown was about. If you want to follow along at home, the lecture is the third one in section 3. Section three goes into detail on the "Subject Matter of Copyright," and the third lecture is about... "Music." You can download it here.
The lecture itself is 24 minutes long, and the vast majority of it is dedicated to creating and explaining this chart, which shows (partially) the messy nature of music copyright licensing today (as a side note, I really appreciate that Fisher is so thorough as to include under the table "payola" as a part of this chart):
However, towards the very end of the lecture, Fisher does play a few sound recording clips to demonstrate a point around cover songs and compulsory licenses (along with his personal opinions on the quality of Stevie Ray Vaughn v. Jimi Hendrix). The clips played are all versions of the Jimi Hendrix classic song Little Wing. You've heard it. In the lecture, Fisher plays approximately the first 45 seconds of the song, from 17:44 in his lecture to 18:31. Then, to demonstrate specific points about cover songs, he plays approximately 15 seconds of a cover by Santana and Joe Cocker. Then about 35 seconds of a version by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and finally about 40 seconds of a version by The Corrs. By my count, a little over 2 minutes of the entire 24-minute video are music clips.
Let's be clear here: this is unquestionably fair use. It's not entirely clear to me if this was an explicit takedown or merely a YouTube ContentID match, but either way there is no reason for YouTube to have allowed this to be blocked. If you run through the four factors test of fair use, all four suggest that it's fair use. The purpose and character of the use is clearly for educational purposes, which the fair use part of the law explicitly calls out as an example of fair use. The "nature" of the work is a song, but that seems to have little bearing here on the fair use question. The amount and substantiality of the portion taken was fairly small -- basically just enough for Fisher to make his point showing the differences between the songs and how that applies to the compulsory licenses issued for cover songs. And, finally, the effect of the use upon the potential market is nil. No one is listening to Fisher's lecture as a "replacement" for going out and getting the Hendrix song, or any other version of Little Wing. And I don't think there's a huge "market" in "licensing music to copyright lectures."
In fact, considering how frequently we hear the RIAA and other copyright system supporters (especially within the recording industry) arguing that what the world really needs is better education on copyright issues so that the public better understands it, it seems particularly stupid to issue a takedown over a free lecture explaining music copyright. But, of course, no one ever suggested that the recording industry is particularly intelligent in how it goes about fighting its peculiar war.
This story is reminiscent of when Warner Music issued a DMCA takedown on a presentation by another famed Harvard Law professor, Larry Lessig. Similar things have happened a few times to Lessig, including one case where Lessig sued in response, seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement along with damages under DMCA 512(f), which forbid "misrepresentations" in filing DMCA notices. That case eventually settled, with the record label (an Australian label called Liberation Music) paying a sum of money that went to the EFF. It's unclear what Fisher will do in this situation, but I imagine that as this story begins to get attention, both Sony Music and YouTube may want to reconsider the original move to take down the video.
For many, many years, the big German music performance rights organization GEMA has been at war with YouTube over what rates YouTube must pay for any streamed music. It started with GEMA more or less arguing that a stream on YouTube was effectively the same as a purchased download on iTunes, and that it should get $0.17 per stream (yes, per stream). For anyone who understands even basic economics you'd recognize that's not even remotely in the realm of reality. The battle has gone on ever since, and unlike basically every other country in the world GEMA has refused to budge. Because of this YouTube has blocked most major label music from its service in Germany, while GEMA has filed a variety of lawsuits against YouTube in the country arguing that YouTube is somehow responsible for what YouTube users upload.
In the latest round, YouTube scored a victory as a court rightly found that YouTube is a neutral platform and not liable for a user's uploads. According to David Meyer at Fortune:
On Thursday, the higher regional court of Munich rejected GEMA’s claim for damages to the tune of around €1.6 million ($1.75 million). If you’re wondering, that figure represents royalties for 1,000 music videos chosen as examples, at a rate of 0.375 euro cents per view. The court upheld a judgement by the lower regional court in Munich, which said YouTube is just a host for uploaded video.
Meyer also notes that GEMA will likely appeal, so it's not over yet. He also notes, of course, that the rate demanded, while still insane, is at least lower than what GEMA was originally asking for.
I really hate stories where there is no one to root for. Unfortunately, this is one of those stories. C'est la vie. If you were ambulatory enough to get to your computer these past few weeks, you likely came across a video from a Donald Trump rally, in which a group of five young girls, only three of which are seen in the video, called the USA Freedom Kids hip-bobbed a serenade to the Trumpster about how awesome America is. It was horrible. It was jingoistic and patronizing with just a dash of discomfort as these young girls were dressed in pleated red, white and blue skirts and tops. So that you don't think I'm exaggerating the level of horror here, see the video of the whole thing below, if you can stomach it.
That video is from the YouTube account for The USA Freedom Kids. I embedded their video instead of this one that was uploaded by a Phoenix, Arizona Fox affiliate, because, well...
Yeah, it was taken down by EMI. But why, you ask? While many of us would thank anyone or anything that could tear the existence of this horror show away from wherever unsuspecting innocents might happen across it, what stake does EMI Music have in this song sung by The USA Freedom Kids?
It’s possible that YouTube’s auto-removal bots finally caught some infringement (real or perceived) on the song, though if that’s the case, it’s odd it took them so long.
The more likely case, though, is that someone realized that “Over There,” the World War I song that Freedom’s Call’s tune is taken from, is still copyrighted. And that the copyright belongs to Sony/ATV Music Publishing, EMI Music Publishing’s parent company. Fox 10 Phoenix didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, nor has EMI.
Given the autobots haven't gobbled up other versions of the recording, it appears most likely that EMI specifically targeted the one shared by Fox. Now, look, what the hell am I supposed to do here? I don't want that video to exist, but I also don't like EMI being able to disappear content of any kind in favor of protecting their rights to a song that was created before my grandfather graced Earth. It's like trying to decide whether to back Stalin or Pol Pot in a fistfight: I'm just wishing there was a way where everyone could lose.
There are so many reasons why it's ridiculous that EMI could take down this video to begin with: the age of the song, the nature of the use for political speech by these girls, the fact that a news organization did the sharing in its capacity on reporting the news, etc. But this is what you get when you mix silly politics with insanely over-reaching copyright law, I suppose.
So, Vice's Motherboard has an amusing article about how the misleadingly named GuitarHeroFailure (misleading, because the guy's actually good at the game) tried to get around YouTube ContentID takedowns on one of his Guitar Hero videos (of Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon") by singing an acapella version of the song over it. The overall effect is really quite amazing. Watch the video (and don't miss his, um, "variation" at the very end) below:
The guy claims, in a separate video that he wasn't really trying to comment on copyright law (he actually says "YouTube's copyright laws," which, you know, aren't actually a thing). But, no matter what it is commenting on it. He notes that he was really proud of how well he did in that particular game, and was disappointed that it got taken down by YouTube.
But, even if he didn't mean for it to be a comment on copyright law, it absolutely is. But here's the craziest part. It's likely that his new video also violates copyright law. Because, remember, when it comes to music licensing in particular, copyright law is insane. There are multiple licenses that you need. There's one for the sound recording -- and in this case, he doesn't have to deal with that one. But, if you're doing a cover song, you need a mechanical license for the composition of the song. And then, the fact that it's been put on a video raises a whole separate issue, which is the need for a totally different license called a synch license, for when you use a composition with a video.
Of course, YouTubers rarely (i.e., basically never) get such licenses at all, and it's mostly ignored by everyone. But that doesn't mean it will always be. And, again, that highlights the absolute insanity of music licensing these days. People are doing stuff that clearly is not taking away anything from the market for the original music, but because of the messy, patchwork setup of copyright laws and music licensing, it's almost impossible to be fully compliant no matter what you do.
And don't even get me started on the copyright questions raised by this other video in which someone took GuitarHeroFailure's acapella and synched it to the original Ozzy song. Because, really, there aren't enough hours in the day to analyze that mess...
Years back, Georgia dentist Gordon Austin was indicted on 12 counts "with multiple counts of simple battery, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children." The details of the case were pretty horrifying, involving claims of Medicare fraud, along with multiple claims that Austin hit his patients when they would complain loudly (apparently after the anesthesia did not work properly). When he was indicted, the local news covered the story as you can see below:
That video was uploaded by a user named "gordonaustinsacoward," and it was uploaded on March 1, 2009, while the case was still ongoing. Eventually, Austin appeared to have worked out a plea deal, in which he pled guilty to Medicare fraud, while the assault and cruelty to children charges were dropped. His dental license was pulled and he got five years probation, along with $15,000 in fines.
Everything about this is ridiculous. The statute of limitations (1 year for defamation) is long past. From everything that's been reported, it's not clear that anything in the video is even defamatory anyway. And, of course, in just reposting someone else's video, there are Section 230 protections as well. This seems like Austin deciding he wants to find out who uploaded the video and this is the way he wants to do so. Paul Levy from Public Citizen has filed a motion to quash the subpoena.
It is settled law that, when a subpoena seeks to identify an anonymous Internet speaker so
that the speaker can be served as a defendant in a lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden of showing
both that he has filed a valid complaint and that he has admissible evidence establishing the
elements of his claims.... No
such evidence has been provided here. Moreover, settled law also establishes that the complaint
cannot possibly succeed for several reasons, including that the suit was filed six years after the
allegedly defamatory statements were made, long after the statute of limitations expired, and that,
because Doe only posted a video that somebody else had created, section 230 of the
Communications Decency Act immunizes him from being sued.
The motion notes that the defamation complaint has all the hallmarks of someone just trying to censor -- mainly a total lack of calling out any actually defamatory claims:
The complaint repeatedly refers to
“false” statements but never specifies what the alleged falsities are and how they are false. And
although the complaint alleges actual malice in very conclusory terms, it never explains why an
ordinary citizen would not be justified in accepting the word of the prosecution as well as Fox
News in repeating the gist of the indictment and republishing the TV story.
Of course, in the end, all this can serve to do is bring Gordon Austin's previous guilty plea and indictment back into the public's attention. And it may end up costing him -- both in bringing the case back into the public's view, but also because California recently made attorneys' fees mandatory on subpoenas that are quashed, something that Paul Levy will now be testing -- including seeking fees from the lawyers who filed the bogus lawsuit and subpoena in the first place:
Several years ago, the California Court of Appeal ruled, in a case we handled involving a subpoena from the so-called “randy rabbi,” Mordecai Tendler, that California’s anti-SLAPP statute cannot be used to strike subpoenas sought in support of litigation in a different state. The California legislature responded by amending its Code of Civil Procedure to provide that, when the target of such a subpoena successfully moves to have the subpoena quashed, the court "shall" award attorney fees. This statutory provision can help encourage lawyers to take subpoena cases as, for example, the inclusion of a “special motion to quash” in DC’s anti-SLAPP law has encouraged lawyers to take on such motions pro bono. And equally important, it can create a disincentive for the issuance of groundless subpoenas to the California ISP’s that can only be subpoenaed in California. But, so far as I have been able to determine, that statute has not yet been applied. In order to fortify the disincentive, we intend to argue that, like any other attorney fee award under the discovery rules, that the lawyer can be held responsible along with the client.
As Levy notes, it appears that Austin's lawyer, John Autry, refused to withdraw the subpoena when asked, and appeared to know that he was filing a lawsuit well after the statute of limitations had run out:
I personally urged the lawyer who signed the subpoena, John Autry (whose name does not appear on his firm’s web site), to withdraw the subpoena. I am willing to assume that, given the nature of the legal practice described on the Coles Barton web site, their research might never have brought section 230 immunity to their attention, but Mr. Autry certainly knew that the defamation action was time-barred; he was defensive about that aspect of the case when I first spoke to him. Moreover, however much Mr. Autry might be willing to let his client proclaim his innocence when not speaking under oath, he cannot possibly doubt that the anonymous poster had at least some reason to believe that Austin was guilty of the charges for which he was indicted, and which were described in detail during the television broadcast. I don't see how he can possibly expect to make out a prima facie case in support of his client’s causes of action, and he can fairly be held responsible for not having noticed that California requires the plaintiff to present sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case before an online poster can be outed. Thus Austin’s lawsuit has no realistic chance of success, and Mr. Autry can be faulted for lending his position as an officer of the court to obtain issuance of a subpoena that represents pure bullying, perhaps undertaken in the hope that the anonymous user might be unable to find and afford counsel to have it quashed in California.
It is a shame that Austin’s lawyer was neither able to persuade his client to drop the subpoena, nor willing to withdraw his own participation in this travesty. At this point, however, it seems likely that the lawyer will have to join his client in paying a financial price for that bullying.
from the they're-wrong-about-the-throttling,-maybe-not-on-the-jerk-thing dept
On Monday we wrote about T-Mobile flat out lying about the nature of its BingeOn mobile video service -- and after a couple of days of silence, the company has come out swinging -- by lying some more and weirdly attacking the people who have accurately portrayed the problems of the service. As a quick reminder, the company launched this service a few months ago, where the company claimed two things (though didn't make it entirely clear how separate these two things were): (1) that the company would not count data for streaming video for certain "partner" companies and (2) that it would be "optimizing" video for all users (though through a convoluted process, you could opt-out).
There were a bunch of problems with this, starting with the fact that favoring some partner traffic over others to exempt it from a cap (i.e., zero rating) is a sketchy way to backdoor in net neutrality violations. But, the bigger issue was that almost everything about T-Mobile's announcement implied that it was only "partner" video that was being "optimized" while the reality was that they were doing it for any video they could find (even downloaded, not streamed). The biggest problem of all, however, was that the video was not being "optimized" but throttled by slowing down video.
Once the throttling was called out, T-Mobile went on a weird PR campaign, flat out lying, and saying that what they were doing was "optimizing" not throttling and that it would make videos stream faster and save users data. However, as we pointed out, that's blatantly false. Videos from YouTube, for example, were encrypted, meaning that T-Mobile had no way to "optimize" it, and tests from EFF proved pretty conclusively that the only thing T-Mobile was doing was slowing connection speeds down to 1.5 Mbps when it sensed video downloads of any kind (so not even streaming), and that actually meant that the full amount of data was going through in many cases, rather than an "optimized" file. EFF even got T-Mobile to admit that this was all they were doing.
So that makes the response of T-Mobile execs yesterday and today totally baffling because rather than actually respond to the charges, they've doubled down on the blatant lying, suggesting that either it's executives have no idea what the company is actually doing, or that they are purposely lying to their users, which isn't exactly the "uncarrier" way that the company likes to promote.
We'll start with the big cheese himself, CEO John Legere, whose claim to fame is how "edgy" he is as a big company CEO. He's now released a statement and a video that are in typical Legere outspoken fashion -- but it's full of blatant lies.
The video and the typed statement are fairly similar, but Legere adds some extra color in the video version.
Let's parse some of the statements. I'll mostly be using the ones from the written statement as they're easier to cut and paste, rather than transcribe, but a few from the video are worth calling out directly.
I’ve seen and heard enough comments and headlines this week about our Binge On video service that it’s time to set the record straight. There are groups out there confusing consumers and questioning the choices that we fight so hard to give our customers. Clearly we have very different views of how customers get to make their choices -- or even if they’re allowed to have choices at all! It’s bewildering …so I want to talk about this.
Of course, this is a nice, but misleading attempt to frame the conversation. No one is complaining about "giving choices to consumers." They're complaining about (1) misleading consumers and (2) providing a worse overall experience by throttling which (3) directly violates the the FCC's prohibition on throttling. The next part I'm taking from the video itself, rather than the printed statement, because Legere goes much further in the video, including the curses, which magically don't show up in the printed version:
There are people out there saying we’re “throttling.” That's a game of semantics and it's bullshit! That's not what we're doing. Really! What throttling is is slowing down data and removing customer control. Let me be clear. BingeOn is neither of those things.
This is flat out wrong and suggests Legere doesn't even know the details of his own service. As the EFF's tests proved (and the fact that YouTube videos are encrypted should make clear) T-Mobile is absolutely slowing down data. In fact, EFF got T-Mobile to confirm this, so Legere claiming it's "bullshit" is... well... bullshit!
But he's playing some tricky word games here, claiming that throttling is not just slowing down data, but also removing customer control. That's (1) not true and (2) also misleading. For all of Legere and T-Mobile's talk about "giving more options to consumers" or whatever, they're totally leaving out the fact that they automatically turned this on for all users without a clear explanation as to what was happening, leading to multiple consumer complaints about how their streaming videos were no longer functioning properly -- even for users on unlimited data plans.
Customer choice? Sure they could "opt-out" after through a convoluted process that many did not understand. But T-Mobile made the choice for all its users, rather than providing a choice for its customers to make.
Mobile customers don’t always want or need giant heavy data files. So we built technology to optimize for mobile screens and stream at a bitrate designed to stretch your mobile data consumption. You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD, but use only 1/3 as much data (or, of course, NO data used when it’s a Binge On content provider!). That's not throttling. That's a huge benefit.
Again, this is both wrong and misleading. There is no optimization. Legere is lying. They are 100% slowing down the throughput on video when they sense it. The EFF's tests prove as much. Yes, for some video providers when they sense lower bandwidth, they will downgrade the resolution, but that's the video provider optimizing, not T-Mobile. T-Mobile is 100% throttling, and hoping that the video provider downgrades the video.
But in cases where that doesn't happen then it doesn't save any data at all (the EFF test confirmed that the full video file still comes through, just slower).
Also, note the play on words "You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD." At first you think he's saying that you get the same video quality overall, but he's not. He's saying as a DVD, at 480p, which is lower than the 1080p that many HD videos are offered at. And that's what many people are complaining about -- that they'd like to watch videos at the full 1080p, but T-Mobile made the choice that they can't do that unless they go through a convoluted process to turn this off.
Rather than respond to any of this, Legere then claims that "special interest groups" and Google are doing this.... "to get headlines."
So why are special interest groups -- and even Google! -- offended by this? Why are they trying to characterize this as a bad thing? I think they may be using Net Neutrality as a platform to get into the news.
Wait, what? Google -- the same Google that absolutely refused to say anything publicly at all about net neutrality for years during the debate suddenly wants to get into the news by jumping on the net neutrality bandwagon? Does Legere have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? And it's not like Google has a problem getting into the news. And what about EFF and others? Does he really think they need to get extra news coverage?
But note the facts here: at no point does Legere respond to the actual charges leveled against the company. He then concludes by yelling at everyone for daring to complain about this:
At T-Mobile we're giving you more video. More choice. And a powerful new choice in how you want your video delivered. What's not to love? We give customers more choices and these jerks are complaining, who the hell do they think they are? What gives them the right to dictate what my customers, or any wireless consumer can choose for themselves?
Nice. I'm part of the contingent complaining about this and I'm also a T-Mobile customer... and the CEO just called me a jerk while telling me he's fighting for his customers? Really now?
And again this whole statement is blatantly misleading. The "choice" was made by T-Mobile for all users, and getting out of it involves a convoluted process that most don't understand and where none of this was made clear to end users. Beyond violating the FCC's "no throttling" rule, I wonder if it also violates the FCC's transparency rules as well, in which they are required to be much more upfront about how the data is being treated.
Also, the statement above is from the video where we're described as "jerks," but in the written version it leaves out the "jerks" claim, but also includes the following bit mocking YouTube for letting users choose to change the resolution on videos:
YouTube complained about Binge On, yet at the same time they claim they provide choice to customers on the resolution of their video. So it's ok for THEM to give customers choice but not for US to give our customers a choice? Hmmm. I seriously don't get it.
But that's bullshit also. YouTube's choice option there is a clear pulldown on every video shown, so that a user just needs to click on the video their watching and set the resolution. T-Mobile's is a process that's not clear at all, with some users reporting they had to call in and get T-Mobile customer service to turn BingeOn off for their account. To compare the two situations is completely bonkers.
As far as I can tell, Legere either doesn't understand what his own company is doing technically, or knows and is purposely misrepresenting it. Neither of those look good and go against the entire "uncarrier" concept they keep pitching. I'd expect better as a T-Mobile customer than being told that I'm a "jerk" for pointing this out.
And it appears he's not the only one among senior execs at T-Mobile who still don't realize what their own company is doing. On Wednesday at a Citigroup conference, T-Mobile's Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert
spewed some more nonsense suggesting he, too, has no idea what his own company is doing:
At a Citigroup investor conference Wednesday, T-Mobile executives shot back, saying YouTube’s stance is “absurd.” YouTube is owned by Alphabet Inc. “We are kind of dumbfounded, that a company like YouTube would think that adding this choice would somehow be a bad thing,” said T-Mobile Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert. He said YouTube hasn’t “done the work yet to become part of the free service.”
Taken at face value, that comment makes no sense. If YouTube hasn't done the work yet to become a part of the free service than why the fuck is T-Mobile slowing down its videos? YouTube wasn't complaining about "adding this choice." YouTube was complaining about direct throttling of video content by T-Mobile, in clear violation of the FCC's prohibition on throttling.
Sievert and Legere both don't seem to understand (1) what YouTube and users are complaining about or (2) what his own company is doing. That's... troubling, given that these are the CEO and COO of the company. It really seems like T-Mobile execs might want to spend some time talking to its tech team to understand the fact that the only thing T-Mobile is doing to video is throttling it down to 1.5 Mbps, rather than any actual "optimization" before spewing more nonsense and calling their own customers "jerks." And, they might want to realize that their claim that this is all "bullshit" is actually complete bullshit. And that their bullshit may very well violate the FCC's rules.
Big companies often have a way of tap dancing around the truth. It's rarely lying, because they will choose their words carefully, in a manner that clearly misleads or distorts, but is not necessarily outright lying. T-Mobile, however, appears to be flat out lying. We recently wrote about the charges from YouTube that T-Mobile was throttling YouTube videos as part of its Binge On program that zero rates video on mobile phones so it doesn't count against data caps. We noted the problems with this program when it launched, but YouTube's claims take it even further.
Again, the program supposedly "optimizes" video streams down to a lower resolution, with the promise that partner videos will not count against T-Mobile's data caps. However, YouTube pointed out that it is not a partner and its videos were being throttled, in clear violation of the clear "no throttling" rules from the FCC. T-Mobile took exception to my post about it and demanded corrections and clarifications, making a few different claims. After investigating the claims, I can say (1) that we will not be clarifying or correcting anything in the original post and (2) more importantly, it appears that T-Mobile is flat out lying in some of its claims. It's not dancing around the truth, it is claiming things that are simply untrue. This is the key claim that T-Mobile's PR person made to me:
Using the term “throttle” is misleading. We aren’t slowing down YouTube or any other site. In fact, because video is optimized for mobile devices, streaming from these sites should be just as fast, if not faster than before. A better phrase is “mobile optimized” or “lower resolution.”
This is clearly not true. While you can have a semantic debate about whether "throttling" is "optimizing," the facts with T-Mobile are pretty clear: it is NOT optimizing YouTube videos at all. It is 100% throttling them.
When Binge On first launched without YouTube as a partner, many people asked why, and T-Mobile's VP of Engineering, Grant Castle, explained that the reason was because it could not identify YouTube videos, since nearly all YouTube traffic is encrypted. Thus, T-Mobile admitted that it had no way to "optimize" YouTube videos:
T-Mobile says the problem is technical. The software it is using to deliver streaming video at lower-definition quality needs to be able to identify the incoming traffic as being video as opposed to, say, photographs or email. It can’t always do that with YouTube.
Most YouTube traffic uses a protocol called HTTPS, which T-Mobile can detect, but some portions may be using a less-used protocol called UDP that the wireless company has more difficulty reading, according to Grant Castle, vice president of engineering at T-Mobile. That means the carrier isn’t certain about the format of some streams coming from YouTube.
“YouTube is a little difficult,” said Mr. Castle.
Thus, the only thing that T-Mobile can do for many YouTube encrypted streams is not to "optimize" it at all, but to flat out throttle it down to speeds around 1.5 mbps. You can see this in the tests done by Dualsim.us and the following video.
Remember how T-Mobile in their message to me said that the "optimized" videos should show up "just as fast, if not faster than before." Yeah, that's bullshit. Watch the video below (I start the video about 5 minutes in -- the first five minutes mostly just show that the two phones are both on T-Mobile's unlimited network with similar speed connections -- at which point the video comparison is shown):
As you can see, rather than "just as fast, if not faster than before," what you see for the throttled -- not "optimized" -- video is, instead, something much slower. That's because T-Mobile appears to downgrade the data flow from ~12 Mbps down to something like 1.4 or 1.5 Mbps.
That's absolutely 100% throttling. There is no "optimization" going on because T-Mobile cannot optimize those videos, since they're encrypted.
T-Mobile is lying. Flat out lying.
And... in a bit of perfect timing, just as I was completing this post, I see that EFF has published the results of its own technical tests of BingeOn, which also confirm that there is no "optimization" here -- and got T-Mobile to admit it was lying. It's purely throttling:
Our last finding is that T-Mobile’s video “optimization” doesn’t actually alter or enhance the video stream for delivery to a mobile device over a mobile network in any way. This means T-Mobile’s “optimization” consists entirely of throttling the video stream’s throughput down to 1.5Mbps. If the video is more than 480p and the server sending the video doesn’t have a way to reduce or adapt the bitrate of the video as it’s being streamed, the result is stuttering and uneven streaming—exactly the opposite of the experience T-Mobile claims their “optimization” will have.
Given the difference between what T-Mobile implies they do and what we found, we contacted them to get clarification. They confirmed that they don’t do any actual optimization of video streams other than reducing the bandwidth allocated to them (and relying on the provider to notice, and adapt the bitrate accordingly).
In fact, the EFF study compared a hash of the download to a version that was on the server and found the files were identical (i.e., no "optimization" -- just purely throttling). Again, this is the exact opposite of what T-Mobile's PR person told me in demanding a correction. T-Mobile is lying.
EFF also discovered that T-Mobile's earlier statement that it can't detect encrypted video is also misleading, as the company now claims it can:
The second major finding in our tests is that T-Mobile is throttling video downloads even when the filename and HTTP headers (specifically the Content-Type) indicate the file is not a video file. We asked T-Mobile if this means they are looking deeper than TCP and HTTP headers, and identifying video streams by inspecting the content of their customers’ communications, and they told us that they have solutions to detect video-specific protocols/patterns that do not involve the examination of actual content.
Finally, EFF realized that even if you're just downloading the video (i.e., not streaming, but downloading for later viewing), you STILL get throttled:
The first result of our test confirms that when Binge On is enabled, T-Mobile throttles all HTML5 video streams to around 1.5Mps, even when the phone is capable of downloading at higher speeds, and regardless of whether or not the video provider enrolled in Binge On. This is the case whether the video is being streamed or being downloaded—which means that T-Mobile is artificially reducing the download speeds of customers with Binge On enabled, even if they’re downloading the video to watch later. It also means that videos are being throttled even if they’re being watched or downloaded to another device via a tethered connection.
A separate claim in the email from T-Mobile is more of the "tap dancing around the truth" variety. And it's the claim that T-Mobile made it clear from the beginning that it would be doing this to non-partner videos as well. Here's what the T-Mobile rep said in the email to me:
This is how Binge On has always worked. We said it from the stage, in press materials, on the web, and in customer notifications last month, and media covered it last month, as well.
This is extremely misleading. Nearly everyone I've spoken to among people who follow these issues had no idea that the "throttling" (not optimization) applied to non-partner videos. I, as a T-Mobile customer, also never received any such notice (though the PR person then forwarded me the "notification" email, so I guess technically I have now received it). Either way, I went back to look at the press release and T-Mobile's own page about Binge-On to see about how clearly the company really revealed that it would also be throttling non-partner video. And the company was not at all clear about it.
In the press release (not surprisingly), T-Mobile focuses on all the Binge On partners. To realize that it's also throttling other videos you have to carefully parse some confusing text buried in the 8th paragraph of the press release, which most people won't even recognize. Here are paragraphs four through eight -- with the relevant mention bolded (without that, you might miss it):
With Binge On, video now streams free for viewers and subscribers of Crackle, Encore, ESPN, Fox Sports, Fox Sports Go, HBO Now, HBO Go, Hulu, MLB, Movieplex, NBC Sports, Netflix, Sling TV, Sling Box, SHOWTIME, STARZ, T-Mobile TV, Univision Deportes, Ustream, Vessel, Vevo, VUDU—with more streaming services on the way—without ever touching their 4G LTE data on Simple Choice plans with extra data. T-Mobile is also including Verizon’s Go90 and AT&T’s DirecTV streaming services in Binge On, so even the Duopoly’s video services stream without fear of overages.
Binge On is open to any streaming video provider who meets the technical requirements, which are available online at www.t-mobile.com/bingeon. And it’s completely free for video streaming providers to join.
“With Binge On, no one pays—not the customers, not the video streaming services—and everyone wins,” said Legere.
Powered by new technology built in to T-Mobile’s network, Binge On optimizes video for mobile screens, minimizing data consumption while still delivering DVD or better quality (e.g. 480p or better). That means more reliable streaming for services that stream free with Binge On, and for almost all other video, it means T-Mobile Simple Choice customers can watch up to three times more video from their data plan. And, as always, T-Mobile has put customers in total control with a switch to activate or deactivate Binge On for each line in their My T-Mobile account. Binge On is all about customer choice.
So basically all of the press release is talking about how Binge On is about "free" video from partners, and then in the second half of a sentence, buried in the middle of a paragraph (eight paragraphs into the press release) is a tidbit about how "for all other videos" the bandwidth is downgraded (what T-Mobile falsely calls "optimized"). That is the farthest thing from being clear about what is happening.
Similarly, on the website for Binge On itself, this is far from clear. Most of the page goes on and on and on about how "you can stream all you want for FREE without using your data." The clear implication is that video streaming doesn't count against a datacap. Lower down it has the following:
What basically no one is going to realize is that the "Watch 3X more video" claim on the right is talking about non-partner video. They don't actually say that. In fact, given how so much of the focus is on how the video doesn't count against the data cap at all, the whole "3x more video" bit is actually kind of confusing, because they're both saying you can watch "as much video as you want" on the left, and then on the right, saying you can now watch 3x as much video. They are not being clear at all about this.
It's only if you go all the way to the bottom of the page and click to expand the first "question" about Binge On that it finally explains what this means:
I mean, it's really, really buried. Here's a screenshot of the whole page, showing you where this information is buried (and, remember, this is showing it to you after I've clicked the little "+" button to show more). Most people will miss it entirely:
So, yeah: T-Mobile is flat out lying in claiming that it "optimizes" YouTube, and it's being ridiculously misleading in arguing that it was abundantly clear about how Binge On would impact non-partner videos.
Now, the big question: will the FCC actually do anything about this?
For quite some time now, we've pointed out that the whole zero rating issue was a way for broadband providers to conduct a stealth war on net neutrality -- first putting in place "restrictions" that they could then "lift" for partners, pretending it was a consumer friendly move. Last month, T-Mobile introduced Binge-on, it's second such attempt at zero rating. Its first, Music Freedom, exempted some streaming music services from its data caps. Binge-On focused on video, but had a few oddities. Like Music Freedom, Binge On would make "select" video streaming platforms exempt from the data cap -- but in order to do that, it would downgrade the quality of those streams to 480p, a lower resolution than most are used to these days. It was notable that neither YouTube nor Amazon Prime were included "partners" in the launch.
But... some people started noticing some problems: specifically, even those services that have not partnered with T-Mobile started seeing their own videos downgraded. The complaints started to flow on Reddit: someone noticed that Amazon-owned Twitch.tv's videos were suddenly being throttled. Others noticed YouTube videos being throttled. In both cases, those users were able to "fix" the problem by going into their account and turning off Binge On, but it still seemed troubling that T-Mobile had decided to automatically turn on Binge On for users, downgrading streaming video, even for video providers who had not agreed to such provisions.
Degrading video quality this way violates the FCC’s no-throttling part of the net neutrality rule, which forbids reducing the quality of an application or an entire class of applications. Even though T-Mobile and its brilliant CEO, John Legere, have done much to shake up the mobile industry in positive ways (they even won me over as a subscriber), this is one practice that the company should, and probably must, abandon.
As a purely legal matter, T-Mobile cannot easily defend its actions by arguing that this discrimination is good for its users. The FCC has already rejected that argument in advance by adopting a “bright-line” rule for all technical forms of discrimination absent some special technical justification. After hearing from millions of Americans throughout 2014, the FCC decided earlier this year that “the record overwhelmingly supports adopting rules and demonstrates that three specific practices invariably harm the open Internet,” and named one of them throttling.
YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., said T-Mobile is effectively throttling, or degrading, its traffic. “Reducing data charges can be good for users, but it doesn’t justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent,” a YouTube spokesman said.
T-Mobile -- which has never been a fan of the new net neutrality rules, seems to think that because the service is "optional" that makes it okay. But that ignores two key things: (1) the FCC's rules say no throttling and (2) even if it is optional, T-Mobile turned it on for everyone, without telling users, and has not made it at all clear to users what's happening. That is, in every complaint you see online, you'll notice that people have no idea that this service has been turned on.
That makes it hard to square with the idea that this is for the benefit of T-Mobile subscribers. T-Mobile's only statement on this issue so far is also totally disingenuous:
In a statement, the No. 3 U.S. carrier by subscribers said its customers “love having free streaming video that never hits their data bucket” and like “both the quality of their video experience and the complete control they have.”
Again, this is T-Mobile exempting certain services from the data caps it set up itself. If customers love having streaming video that doesn't hit their data caps, then there are all sorts of ways to do that, which don't involve messing up the user experience overall, and without surreptitiously turning this system on in a way that messes up the plans of users.
Over the last few months, we've seen basically all of the major telcos look for ways to test the boundaries of the new net neutrality rules. At some point the FCC is going to have to smack them down or the tests are going to get more anti-consumer and more blatant. And, again, don't be fooled into thinking this is a "pro" consumer move in that it exempts data from the cap. That's like someone tackling you and then demanding to be called a nice guy for giving you a hand to get back up. The data caps are set by T-Mobile itself. The argument pretending that an exemption is somehow consumer friendly should immediately be spun around to point out that the caps themselves are then clearly anti-consumer.
Either way, one hopes that the FCC is actually paying attention, otherwise the telcos are going to keep moving to walk all over the new rules, with plans like this one, figuring out where and how they can throttle or prioritize traffic based on the providers' own needs, rather than based on what the internet allows.