As we just got done noting, Netflix recently admitted that it has been throttling the streams it sends to AT&T and Verizon wireless customers in order to lessen the impact of usage caps. While most everybody agrees that Netflix should have been transparent about the practice, most also agree that Netflix -- an outspoken opponent of usage caps and supporter of net neutrality -- was actually trying to improve the customer experience with the move. As such, no real harm was done, and nobody even noticed that Netflix had been doing it -- for five years. Really not much of a story in and of itself.
But the telecom industry and its allies, outraged by Netflix's support of net neutrality, opposition to usage caps, and the threat it poses to legacy TV, have been desperately and hysterically trying to paint Netflix's reveal as some kind of immense gotcha.
AT&T (fresh off of an FTC lawsuit and FCC fine for lying about throttling for years) insisted it was "outraged" by Netflix's behavior. The American Cable Association (fresh off of 10 years of claiming net neutrality was an unnecessary solution to a hallucinated problem) insisted that Netflix should be investigated for its awful behavior, and the FCC should actually expand net neutrality rules to cover so-called "edge" providers. Now FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly has joined the fun, insisting that the FTC, FCC, and Congress should investigate Netflix immediately....for something:
"Netflix has attempted to paint a picture of altruism whereby it virtuously sought to save these consumers from bumping up against or exceeding their data caps," O'Rielly said. "There is no way to sugarcoat it: the news is deeply disturbing and justly generates calls for government—and maybe even Congressional—investigation."
It's true what Netflix did wasn't entirely altruistic. Reducing the streams of capped customers means they'll be less likely to erode their usage caps quickly, and happier with Netflix's service. But when it comes to looking out for consumers on the issue of net neutrality and usage caps, Netflix has been nothing but a genuine consumer ally -- while bigger companies professing to love net neutrality (**cough** Google) -- ran and hid when the going got politically tough during the most recent fight over net neutrality rule verbiage.
If you're unfamiliar with O'Rielly, he and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (a former Verizon lawyer) vote down absolutely every pro-consumer action item that comes to the FCC, and certainly if it attempts to hold a large telecom company accountable for clear, obvious fraud. From holding AT&T accountable for ripping off the poor or the hearing impaired, to thwarting prison phone companies from ripping off inmate families, O'Rielly votes it all down, consistently lamenting government waste and overreach, while praising the natural ability of the free market to overcome all evil using something akin to magic.
In a recent blog post, O'Rielly argues at great lengths that government should simply stay out of the affairs of the private sector:
"In communications, government is exceedingly busy and involved. It tries to dictate performance of the private sector, enter the marketplace itself, prop-up failing firms, chase flawed policy goals, subsidize favored classes or companies, stifle the offerings of goods and services by disliked firms, tilt the playing field in certain directions and much worse. While some level of activity occurs because of legacy policies, the constant tinkering inevitably interferes with the workings of capitalism and promotes bad outcomes.
"Given the unparalleled record of U.S. success in developing and bringing new, innovative technology products to market with a relatively hands-off regulatory approach, you would think there would be extreme hesitancy to alter that formula. The environment that brought us services like Amazon and Netflix is no accident, but instead can be attributed to a conscious decision to let the tech sector develop with minimal government intervention."
And while channeling Milton Friedman is certainly fine, here the Commissioner is, pushing for a multi-agency investigation into a non-starter. And when O'Rielly can't seem to find any rules that Netflix might have broken, he just starts hunting and pecking around in the dirt to try and find some:
"A company cannot knowingly make misrepresentations and inaccurate statements before the Commission," O'Rielly said. "In fact, doing so violates Commission rules intended to protect the integrity of the Commission and our decisions. We need to closely examine filings that were made for potential violations in light of this new information. It appears that Netflix made accusations of wrongdoing by ISPs, all the while knowing that its own practices were one of the causes of consumer video downgrading."
But when pressed to cite precisely what "misrepresentations and inaccurate statements" Netflix made before the FCC, O'Rielly can't actually cite any. So again, O'Rielly has whined incessantly about how net neutrality and the lack of broadband competition aren't real or deserving of government attention whatsoever, yet he's pushing for a multi-pronged government investigation into Netflix -- for trying to help customers on expensive wireless plans? It's another example of how Washington is painfully beholden to companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, while simultaneously lecturing the public on the miracle of free markets.
Netflix's criticism of usage caps and vocal support of net neutrality (not to mention its threat as a pay TV competitor) has helped it replace Google as public enemy number one for the telecom industry. As such, every PR, lobbying, and political asset at the telecom industry's disposal has taken aim at the streaming giant over the last few years, accusing the company of being a dirty freeloader and horrible hypocrite that's unfairly lobbying the government to attack poor, honest, hardworking companies like AT&T and Comcast.
So when Netflix announced last week it was throttling the connections of AT&T and Verizon customers, the telecom industry's various policy tendrils quivered in collective orgasm at the fresh opportunity for attack.
As noted last week, offhand comments by T-Mobile CEO John Legere appear to have forced Netflix to admit that it has been throttling AT&T and Verizon wireless customers back to 600 kbps. This was, the company insists in a blog post, an attempt to help out users stuck on metered plans with low usage caps and high overage fees. More curiously perhaps, Netflix also admitted that it hasn't been throttling connections for users on Sprint and T-Mobile, because "historically those two companies have had more consumer-friendly policies" (read: they offer unlimited data plans).
Netflix's revelation quickly resulted in AT&T, a company that has throttled customers and lied about it for years, insisting it was "outraged" by the revelation (since obviously Netflix's decision would have cost it user overage fee penalties). The American Cable Association, a coalition of hundreds of smaller cable companies (but with Comcast NBC Universal also as a member) took things one step further, issuing a statement demanding an FCC investigation into Netflix's behavior:
"ACA has said all along that this Federal Communications Commission's approach to Net Neutrality is horribly one-sided and unfair because it leaves consumers unprotected from the actions of edge providers that block and throttle lawful traffic. The FCC's disclosure rules also fall short by covering ISPs but allowing edge providers to affect consumers' Internet experience in the same ways that ISPs' actions can. And now we see further evidence of these shortcomings in Netflix's confession that it has been engaging in covert video throttling to select groups of consumers."
"ACA is disappointed, but not surprised, that Netflix used its immunity from the FCC's Net Neutrality rules to engage in this practice. 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. Under Section 706, the FCC has the authority to conduct such an inquiry and issue regulations, should it be deemed necessary."
There's obviously a few things wrong with that statement. One, it's not a net neutrality violation if you're throttling yourself, that's just vanilla stupid. Two, net neutrality rules were applied to the broadband industry because of limited competition. If there was competition, users could punish bad behavior by switching ISPs, making the rules unnecessary. Net neutrality rules weren't applied to edge content companies because users actually have a choice of options there. The same can't be said for the broadband industry, where most are lucky to have the choice of one ISP that can provide anything resembling next-gen connectivity.
If there's one thing that Netflix can be dinged for, it's for lecturing ISPs on transparency, then failing to reveal that this was even happening. And thanks to competition, anybody bothered by that (and that's not many, since nobody noticed what Netflix was doing for five years) has the choice of switching streaming video providers. But an investigation into a company for effectively throttling itself? The cable industry either doesn't actually understand how net neutrality works, or it's feeding the public a line of bullshit, trying to saddle Netflix with regulations it just spent the last decade trying to argue weren't necessary in the first place.
Netflix this week admitted that the company has been throttling the video streams of most wireless customers around the world to 600 kbps, a practice the company claims is necessary to protect users from usage caps and wireless overage fees. It was the first time Netflix acknowledged the practice, which the company said it's been engaged in for five years. The more interesting part? The company admitted to the Wall Street Journal that it's apparently not throttling the video streams of companies whose consumer policies Netflix agrees with:
"Netflix said it doesn’t limit its video quality at two carriers: T-Mobile and Sprint Corp., because “historically those two companies have had more consumer-friendly policies.” When customers exceed their data plans on Sprint or T-Mobile, the carriers usually slow their network connections, rather than charge overage fees."
The Netflix reveal came after T-Mobile CEO John Legere spent last week defending T-Mobile's controversial Binge On service, which throttles partner video streams to 1.5 Mbps or 480p. Legere spent much of the week poking various news outlets with claims that AT&T and Verizon throttle video streams even further than Binge On, something both companies spent much of last week denying. It didn't apparently take long for the Journal to dig deeper and get an admission out of Netflix that it was the one doing the throttling.
Despite the clear admission from Netflix that it's the one throttling, Legere continues to take to Twitter to blame AT&T and Verizon, meaning he either didn't understand the story he'd read, or he's intentionally being misleading in an attempt to redirect people from recent Binge On criticisms:
2/ I called out @verizon and @att just last week about this – they denied, tried to make it about throttling and called me ‘dopey’!
AT&T, meanwhile, hoping to cash in on the story and paint Netflix as a hypocrite, had its top lobbyist pretend to be "outraged":
"We’re outraged to learn that Netflix is apparently throttling video for their AT&T customers without their knowledge or consent,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs."
AT&T's "outrage" likely stems from the fact that the throttling kept AT&T users from hitting their usage caps and incurring overage fees sooner, costing AT&T money.
After revealing its throttling to the Journal, Netflix posted a new blog post in which it pretended it was revealing its throttling practices by choice, "announcing" it was working on tools that would help customers better manage their data consumption:
"We believe restrictive data caps are bad for consumers and the Internet in general, creating a dilemma for those who increasingly rely on their mobile devices for entertainment, work and more. So in an effort to protect our members from overage charges when they exceed mobile data caps, our default bitrate for viewing over mobile networks has been capped globally at 600 kilobits per second. It’s about striking a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers.
This hasn’t been an issue for our members. Our research and testing indicates that many members worry about exceeding their mobile data cap, and don’t need the same resolution on their mobile phone as on a large screen TV to enjoy shows and movies. However, we recognize some members may be less sensitive to data caps or subscribe to mobile data plans from carriers that don’t levy penalties for exceeding caps. As we develop new technologies, we want to give all our members the choice to adjust their data consumption settings based on their video preferences and sensitivity to their ISPs data overage charges. We’ll provide more details as we get closer to launch.
So to be clear: Netflix should have been more transparent about what it was doing and provide users with better controls (desktop users can adjust streaming quality rather easily), especially if it's going to lecture ISPs on transparency. That said, given Netflix's positions on net neutrality and usage caps, you're sure to see the story blown up into more than it is by ISPs and their various mouthpieces, who'll likely either call this a net neutrality violation itself (it's not; throttling yourself isn't like throttling a competitor, and users have a choice of streaming services) or continue the industry claim that Netflix is a shady villain that treats giant, lumbering telecom duopolies unfairly.
But the crux of the problem here remains usage caps, not Netflix. Sure, Netflix isn't being entirely altruistic. Annoyed customers banging their heads against usage caps watch less streaming video, which for many fixed-line ISPs like Comcast is the entire point. For wireless carriers it's obviously different, with the goal being to drive consumption however possible. But the fact that a company was forced to offer a lower quality service -- instead of competing to provide the best stream possible -- shows how arbitrary usage caps by their very nature distort and damage markets. And that's before you even get to the anti-competitive implications of zero rating.
For years, AT&T used contract fine print to prohibit its customers from suing it. Instead, users were forced to participate in binding arbitration, a system whereby company-employed arbitrators weigh the evidence -- and unsurprisingly rule in favor of the company employing them a dramatic majority of the time. Initially, lower courts repeatedly derided this behavior as an "unconscionable" curtailing of consumer rights and abuse of the law. But in 2011 the Supreme Court's AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion ruling declared that what AT&T was doing was perfectly ok, resulting in countless companies now following AT&T's lead.
However screwed up the class action process may be, the practice of binding arbitration is notably worse. But AT&T's pioneering in the space continues to pay notable dividends. Last month, for example, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen dismantled a class action lawsuit filed against AT&T for the company's practice of misleadingly advertising "unlimited" wireless broadband service, then throttling customers after just a few gigabytes of consumption:
"U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen said in his ruling that the wireless consumers who are suing AT&T all signed contracts that call for arbitration of disputes on an individual basis. Chen's ruling, quietly issued last week, means that AT&T won't face a class-action for allegedly duping people by selling them "unlimited" data plans, but throttling them after they hit a monthly cap. The consumers can still proceed with individual arbitrations, but doing so often is prohibitively costly."
While AT&T may have dodged a class action, it's still being held accountable, though in a notably less expensive fashion. The company has already faced a $100 million fine from the FCC, and is currently trying to fend off an ongoing lawsuit by the FTC. In that case, AT&T continues to ironically argue that because the FCC reclassified AT&T as a common carrier under Title II last year, the FTC no longer has authority over AT&T. That's something the courts, including Chen, continue to deny:
"AT&T is arguing that the FTC has no jurisdiction to proceed, because broadband is now classified as a "common carrier" service. The FTC has no authority over common-carrier services.
Chen rejected AT&T's position, ruling that broadband wasn't considered a common carrier service until the Federal Communications Commission enacted net neutrality rules in 2015. “Once the Reclassification Order of the Federal Communications Commission ... goes into effect, that will not deprive the FTC of any jurisdiction over past alleged misconduct as asserted in this pending action,” he wrote."
You'll recall that AT&T fought tooth and nail against the FCC's reclassifying of ISPs under Title II. Now AT&T's trying to argue that it's that very reclassification that means the FTC can't hold it accountable for throttling. This is after AT&T successfully used a few paragraphs of fine print to prevent customers from directly holding the company accountable via class action. AT&T now makes it clear that its "unlimited" users will be throttled after 22 GB of consumption, but the sheer volume of billable hours and paperwork AT&T's generating just to defend past false advertising practices remains downright staggering.
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.
Last year, you might recall that Netflix took some heat for striking zero rating deals with Australian ISPs, exempting Netflix content from broadband usage caps. Australia was a relatively unique scenario in that the cost of transit is so high, most big content services had struck similar deals, and Netflix didn't want to put itself at a disadvantage in the newly launched Australian market by stubbornly holding on to neutrality principles. Still, it's worth recalling what Netflix said after a few weeks of criticism:
"Data caps inhibit Internet innovation and are bad for consumers. In Australia, we recently sought to protect our new members from data caps by participating in ISP programs that, while common in Australia, effectively condone discrimination among video services (some capped, some not). We should have avoided that and will avoid it going forward. Fortunately, most fixed-line ISPs are raising or eliminating data caps in line with our belief that ISPs should provide great video for all services in a market and let consumers do the choosing."
"Zero rating isn't great for consumers as it has the potential to distort consumer choice in favor of choices selected by an ISP."
Fast forward to 2016, and Netflix is suddenly throwing its support behind T-Mobile and its controversial Binge On zero rating program. Speaking on the company's earnings call this week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings praised Binge On, which throttles every shred of video that touches the T-Mobile network to 1.5 Mbps, whether or not consumers or content partners asked it to. According to Hastings, he's thrilled about the program because it has driven more usage to Netflix:
"It’s voluntary to the customer. Every customer of T-Mobile can decide to turn it on or turn it off," Hastings explained on an earnings call today. "They’re not charging any of the providers. It’s an open program. Many of our competitors such as Hulu and HBO are in the program also." Netflix may be more inclined to defend this program because the company benefits from it: Hastings says that Netflix is seeing more viewership from T-Mobile customers — no surprise since it makes "unlimited video consumption possible." Hastings added that he hopes these kinds of programs expand further."
But as the EFF has pointed out, the fact that users can opt out is irrelevant. T-Mobile's been throttling every shred of video that touches its network to 1.5 Mbps (streamed or direct downloaded) by default, and then lying about it. Critics like YouTube and the EFF have, quite correctly, pointed out that such a program should be opt-in, for both consumers and content partners. The other problem is simply one of precedent; let T-Mobile dick about with how content gets treated, and that opens the door to every carrier modifying traffic to their own benefit.
By refusing to ban zero rating outright, the FCC has opened the door to a flood of similar ideas that are even worse and, cumulatively and aggressively, are eroding the idea of an open Internet. Worse, it's happening to the thunderous applause of some consumers, who think they're being given a gift when an ISP imposes utterly arbitrary usage caps, then graciously allows select content to bypass said caps. Make no mistake though; the act of fucking about with traffic in this fashion is an assault on net neutrality. That many people don't understand this yet (or are eager to ignore the fact when it benefits them) doesn't magically make it less true.
A few years ago, Netflix's Hastings went on a Facebook rant about how Comcast was unfairly letting its own streaming services bypass the company's usage caps. But now that Netflix is seeing benefits from zero rating, it's apparently willing to throw its principles in the toilet. Netflix may want to be careful where it treads. As some companies have discovered, zero rating isn't your friend -- and the special treatment that benefits you today may come back to bite you tomorrow.
Earlier today we wrote about the latest misleading claims from John Legere and T-Mobile about its BingeOn program. I've seen some confusion some of the discussions about this -- some of it thanks to Legere's misleading claims -- so I wanted to go through exactly what T-Mobile appears to be doing and why it's problematic. Also, with that, I wanted to highlight the key part of the FCC's net neutrality rules regarding throttling, and the one single paragraph that T-Mobile appears to be banking on to protect it from getting slapped around.
First, let's be clear: T-Mobile wants to pretend that this is a "semantic" dispute about what it's doing, but that's bullshit. From the beginning the company has been flat out lying about its actions. That may get it in trouble in two ways -- first for violating the bright-line "no throttling" rules and for violating the corresponding transparency rules as well.
So what is T-Mobile doing: if you're a T-Mobile customer and you visit a page to stream or download video (whether or not it's a BingeOn partner), T-Mobile is automatically slowing down your bandwidth to about 1.5 Mbps. That's the throttling bit. What T-Mobile is telling people is that it's "optimizing" the video to a lower resolution. That may be true with some partners, but it's not true of non-partners, especially ones that are encrypted, such as YouTube, where T-Mobile has no way of "optimizing" the video. Instead, even with encrypted streams, since the metadata is still there, it can tell that you're, say, suddenly getting a lot of data from YouTube, and then it automatically slows down the bandwidth.
T-Mobile is hoping that at the server end, YouTube or any other video provider will see this slow bandwidth and say "oh, there's a narrow pipe here, so we should degrade the video down to lower resolution. So, if there's any "optimization" going on, it's actually happening at the server end after T-Mobile has basically tricked them into thinking there's a slow connection. But, in many cases, that doesn't happen, and the end result is not optimized video, or faster video, or even (as T-Mobile keeps claiming) getting to view 3x the amount of data under existing data caps. Instead, it's just the same video at the same resolution... but comes in much more slowly with lots of buffering.
So, to repeat: don't fall for John Legere's spin. The "proprietary technology" he keeps touting is not optimizing non-partner video. It is doing one thing and one thing only: and that's throttling the video.
Now, on to the FCC's rules. Let's look at what the rules pretty clearly say:
A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such
person is so engaged, shall not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of
Internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to
reasonable network management.
Throughout the FCC's statement on the rules, it notes that this is a bright line rule.
With the no-throttling rule, we ban conduct that is not outright blocking, but inhibits the
delivery of particular content, applications, or services, or particular classes of content, applications, or
services. Likewise, we prohibit conduct that impairs or degrades lawful traffic to a non-harmful device
or class of devices. We interpret this prohibition to include, for example, any conduct by a broadband
Internet access service provider that impairs, degrades, slows down, or renders effectively unusable
particular content, services, applications, or devices, that is not reasonable network management. For
purposes of this rule, the meaning of “content, applications, and services” has the same as the meaning
given to this phrase in the no-blocking rule. Like the no-blocking rule, broadband providers may not
impose a fee on edge providers to avoid having the edge providers’ content, service, or application
throttled. Further, transfers of unlawful content or unlawful transfers of content are not protected by the
no-throttling rule. We will consider potential violations of the no-throttling rule under the enforcement
provisions outlined below.
We find that a prohibition on throttling is as necessary as a rule prohibiting blocking.
Without an equally strong no-throttling rule, parties note that the no-blocking rule will not be as effective
because broadband providers might otherwise engage in conduct that harms the open Internet but falls
short of outright blocking. For example, the record notes the existence of numerous practices that
broadband providers can engage in to degrade an end user’s experience.
From that, it seems fairly clear that what T-Mobile is doing violates the no throttling rule. It is slowing down a class of content that is not for anything having to do with reasonable network management.
But T-Mobile keeps harping on the fact that this is "the user's choice" and even claimed throttling is only throttling if the user has no choice. That's because of the next paragraph in the rules -- and this seems to be the entire crux of T-Mobile's argument for why it's not violating the rules:
Because our no-throttling rule addresses instances in which a broadband provider targets
particular content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, it does not address a practice of slowing
down an end user’s connection to the Internet based on a choice made by the end user. For instance, a
broadband provider may offer a data plan in which a subscriber receives a set amount of data at one speed
tier and any remaining data at a lower tier. If the Commission were concerned about the particulars of a
data plan, it could review it under the no-unreasonable interference/disadvantage standard. In contrast,
if a broadband provider degraded the delivery of a particular application (e.g., a disfavored VoIP service)
or class of application (e.g., all VoIP applications), it would violate the bright-line no-throttling rule. We
note that user-selected data plans with reduced speeds must comply with our transparency rule, such that
the limitations of the plan are clearly and accurately communicated to the subscriber.
It's this paragraph that is going to be scrutinized like crazy. T-Mobile insists that because you have the choice to turn BingeOn off, that means that this is "based on a choice made by the end user" and thus the "no throttling" rule doesn't apply.
That seems like a difficult argument to sustain, given that T-Mobile made the initial choice for all of its users. So that initial choice was not made by the user, even if they can (through a convoluted process) turn it off. Separately, the second part that I bolded above appears to totally undermine T-Mobile's argument. It is degrading a class of applications (all video applications) and thus, the FCC rules note, it violates the bright-line no-throttling rule.
There is, separately, the issue of transparency. T-Mobile claims that it was transparent about all of this, but I don't think that's actually true. As we've covered, it really buried and hid the fact that BingeOn applied to non-partner videos, and did so in a confusing way. It also lied about the optimization and the claim that it couldn't even do anything to YouTube videos at the very time it was absolutely throttling them. That's not very transparent. On top of that, by continually falsely claiming that this was "optimization" not "throttling" and even claiming that it would "speed up" videos, rather than slow them down, I do wonder how the company can claim it was truly transparent.
On that front, T-Mobile has been relying on claims that it emailed and texted customers about the move. I have looked and I have received no such emails or texts. In fact, here are all the texts I've received from T-Mobile since August. Note the lack of any text about BingeOn.
Of course, who knows how the FCC will eventually deal with this, but the claim that the company is optimizing, rather than throttling is flat out wrong. It's a lie. The claim that it's respecting the net neutrality rules by letting you opt-out is questionable at best, and most likely false, as the consumer made no initial choice for the throttling. It's moves like these that raise serious questions about just how "consumer friendly" T-Mobile is really being, and which are seriously undermining trust in the company.
The big story of last week was T-Mobile CEO John Legere's meltdown over people calling out the bullshit claims about BingeOn "optimizing" mobile video when the truth is that it was simply throttling all video traffic (partners and non partners alike). Things got even worse when Legere decided to attack EFF and suggest that it was being paid to discredit BingeOn. The simple fact remains, however, that T-Mobile is throttling video streams (and downloads).
Legere briefly went quiet about all of this, but on Monday came out again with yet another statement in the form of an "Open Letter to Consumers about Binge On" which is at least a little more honest, but is still mostly misleading bullshit -- the very thing T-Mobile has built its recent reputation on avoiding.
We invented Binge On to provide customers with an easy and effective way to stretch their data bucket. Knowing that the number one (and climbing) use of data out there is video, it was obviously the natural place to focus. Binge On is like an economy button built into a new car to save gas, and it’s a benefit that customers got the minute we launched, to use it as much as they want to. Period.
Again that sounds good but is totally misleading. First of all, it's T-Mobile that sets the data buckets in the first place. So relieving consumers of the burden that T-Mobile itself placed on consumers is not a consumer-friendly move. It's punching someone and then claiming you're being nice by offering them a hand to get them off the ground. If you start the anti-consumer practice, it's not pro-consumer to roll back a tiny part of it.
Binge On is a FREE benefit given to all T-Mobile customers. It is and always has been a feature that helps you stretch your data bucket by optimizing ALL of your video for your mobile devices.
If this were truly a "benefit" then why does it also apply to unlimited accounts (like mine)? Unlimited account holders don't need or want this "benefit" (and it's not really much of a benefit as we'll get to).
We use our proprietary techniques to attempt to detectall video, determine its source, identify whether it should be FREE and finally adjust all streams for a smaller/handheld device. (Most video streams come in at incredibly high resolution rates that are barely detectable by the human eye on small device screens and this is where the data in plans is wasted). The result is that the data in your bucket is stretched by delivering streamed video in DVD quality - 480p or better (whether you have a 2GB, 6GB or 10GB plan etc.) so your data lasts longer. Putting aside the 38+ services for which we provide FREE data for video through Binge On, as discussed below – this “stretching” of your data bucket is estimated to allow you to watch UP TO 3X MORE VIDEO from your data plan than before. This is a huge step forward.
Again, it's worth remembering that when T-Mobile launched this supposedly consumer-friendly offering, they completely hid the fact that it applied to all video, implying strongly that it only applied to partners. In fact, the company's CTO argued that it was not even possible to identify many YouTube videos -- a claim that turned out to be one of the many lies T-Mobile has spread over this mess.
Second, T-Mobile keeps claiming that most users can't tell the difference between 480p videos and higher quality HD videos, but that's bullshit. In many cases the difference in quality is quite obvious. And, again, if this was all about having your data "last longer" there would be no reason at all to turn it on for unlimited account holders.
Also note that T-Mobile is being a bit misleading here, as its original marketing on BingeOn noted that the free video streaming did not apply to accounts that had less than 3GB on their caps:
Next up, Legere continues to pretend that this is clearly a beneficial service that his customers wanted, despite many, many users saying that they wanted no such thing:
As with virtually all of our Un-carrier benefits, we immediately gave it to everyone! First we reached out to all of our customers via email and SMS message, and told them all about the new functionality that was coming their way. Then we turned it on, for everyone! So if you are a T-Mobile customer – you already have Binge On!
Again, this makes absolutely no sense for unlimited accounts, and the fact that it's not opt-in is just silly:
We strive to default all of our customer benefits to “ON.” We don’t like to make customers dig around to find great new benefits -- that is something a traditional carrier would do when they really hope you, the consumer, won’t take any action. Can you imagine the disappointment, if people saw our TV commercials about Binge On, then went to watch 10 hours of video expecting it to be free, and only THEN learned that they needed to go into their settings to activate this new benefit? That’s how the Carriers would do it, but not T-Mobile. Everyone has it from day 1, period.
So instead of making customers dig around to find this (which is not a "great new benefit"), they make customers dig around to find how to turn it off because they don't want it. That's exactly how the big carriers do things. And, once again, there's simply no reason why it should ever be turned on for unlimited data users.
But here’s the thing, and this is one of the reasons that Binge On is a VERY “pro” net neutrality capability -- you can turn it on and off in your MyTMobile account – whenever you want. Turn it on and off at will. Customers are in control. Not T-Mobile. Not content providers. Customers. At all times.
This is what T-Mobile is banking on as the reason why it's not violating the bright line rule against throttling in the FCC's net neutrality rules -- because there's a small "out" in the rules, saying that the no throttling rule doesn't apply to choices made by the end user to throttle traffic. Of course, that's assuming a situation where the end user proactively decides to slow down certain types of traffic, not where it's forced upon them, and there's a convoluted process to opt-out of it.
Either way none of this addresses the actual concerns raised by many T-Mobile subscribers: T-Mobile lied. It said that it was "optimizing" the video when the truth is that it was just slowing down the video. It doesn't change the fact that T-Mobile was far from transparent in explaining that this throttling (not optimizing) applied to all video, even with non-partner video. Finally, T-Mobile lied in insisting that this "optimization" would make videos load faster, when the reality is that for many video services it neither saves any data (the full file is downloaded, just slower), nor does it speed things up. Instead, it makes it buffer when there's plenty of available bandwidth.
That's what people are complaining about and T-Mobile ignores all of it, continuing to insist that BingeOn is nothing but a consumer friendly offering.
In the end, Legere gives a weak apology to the EFF that again fails to recognize why so many people took issue with his characterization of the EFF ("who the fuck are you? and who pays you?") and pretends that it's just about a difference of opinion:
I will however apologize for offending EFF and its supporters. Just because we don’t completely agree on all aspects of Binge On doesn’t mean I don’t see how they fight for consumers. We both agree that it is important to protect consumers' rights and to give consumers value. We have that in common, so more power to them. As I mentioned last week, we look forward to sitting down and talking with the EFF and that is a step we will definitely take. Unfortunately, my color commentary from last week is now drowning out the real value of Binge On – so hopefully this letter will help make that clear again.
The problem wasn't "offending" EFF, it was that EFF did a good job exposing what T-Mobile is actually doing, and rather than responding to them, you freaked out, attacked them and their credibility and acted like they were some nobody shills. That's not offensive, it's stupid and raises serious questions about T-Mobile's intentions.
Again, what is the "value" of BingeOn, other than throttling video down? Legere still keeps insisting things that aren't really true at all. It's too bad, because Legere had built up T-Mobile to be customer friendly and his reaction to this whole situation has done serious damage to that reputation.
The T-Mobile throttling saga is getting worse. Their PR people have totally stopped responding to me after I pointed out how they were lying about their claims to be "optimizing" video when they were really throttling. And then the company's CEO, John Legere insisted that claims that T-Mobile was "throttling" were bullshit (and then, bizarrely attacked EFF).
T-Mobile customers who activate the company’s controversial Binge On video service will experience downgraded internet connection speeds when viewing videos on YouTube or other sites that don’t take part in Binge On, a T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed today. They’ll also experience slower speeds when trying to download video files for offline use from websites that do not participate in Binge On, at least until the customer deactivates the service.
Of course, even that statement is wrong. It's not for "customers who activate" Binge On. T-Mobile automatically activated it for everyone, and then let you call in to customer service to deactivate it.
But the way that T-Mobile tries to insist that this is not throttling is now to argue that because users can turn it off that's why it's not throttling. Yesterday we noted that tricky sleight of mouth when Legere added an unnecessary clause to the definition of throttling. Here's John Legere's statement yesterday:
What throttling is is slowing down data and removing customer control. Let me be clear. BingeOn is neither of those things.
And again, there are two major problems with this statement: (1) As his own company's spokesperson is now admitting, yes, they absolutely do slow down the data and (2) "removing customer control" has nothing to do with the definition of throttling. Especially when they made the initial choice for all customers.
And, just to add to this, let me remind you what a T-Mobile spokesperson told me via email just a couple of weeks ago:
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.”
And yet now the company is admitting that they are, in fact, slowing down YouTube, not "optimizing" it or making the resolution lower. As I said at the time, T-Mobile is flat out lying. And now two statements from the company directly contradict each other, and the company's CEO is still insisting that the company isn't doing what the company admits it's doing.
I've seen some corporate snafu meltdowns before, but this is reaching epic levels -- and that's bad news for a company that had spent so much time building up a reputation as a "straight shooter." Good reputations are hard to build, but easy to let slip away....
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.