Looks like Netflix and Verizon’s broadband streaming slapfight just went up a notch.
Verizon issued Netflix a cease and desist order Thursday over an error notice the latter has been posting since mid-May to some subscribers, explaining the slow delivery of online videos.
Threatening legal action, Verizon also demanded that Netflix provide a list of customers who have seen that notice, as they would be Verizon subscribers as well. Netflix’s gee-whiz response, as reported by CNBC, was priceless: “This is about consumers not getting what they paid for from their broadband provider,” Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland said. “We are trying to provide more transparency, just like we do with the ISP Speed Index, and Verizon is trying to shut down that discussion.”
There’s no doubt that Netflix is trying to protect its interests by trading jabs with Verizon. But, it turns out, this silly skirmish isn’t so ridiculous after all. It goes back to a rather important issue: net neutrality. Don’t be fooled by the dull name. It’s a far-reaching, pivotal issue that will determine whether broadband Internet service providers—like Verizon and Comcast—can segregate certain types of traffic into fast lanes and slow lanes, or treat them all the same in a neutral playing field.
The issue has long galvanized the tech community. And now, it’s hopping the fence and appealing directly to the broader public.
When A Catfight Is More Than Just A Catflight
As a giant in streaming online video entertainment with more than 44 million users, the issue directly affects Netflix and its enormous user base. Already, the company paid Comcast extra fees earlier this year to more directly and quickly reach its subscribers. And, Netflix noted, speeds did seem to improve somewhat.
The company also signed a similar deal with Verizon last April, but so far, there do not appear to have been any gains in speed. Verizon said it’s working on the infrastructure changes necessary to make it happen.
Since then, the Verizon-Netflix catfight has turned into a clustered mess, with lots of finger-pointing and cheap potshots. Verizon essentially accused Netflix of slowing its own speeds, in an attempt to make the former look bad. The streaming service obviously thinks the ISP is to blame, prompting the rather cheeky (and frankly comedic) notice. But Verizon’s not laughing. And now the courts are involved.
You could just chalk this up to a case of tech companies throwing tantrums and blame-shifting to explain away bad service, but I don’t think that’s the full story.
Timing is a key factor here, with a lot at stake right now. The Federal Communications Commission, which is mulling over several net neutrality proposals, opened the matter up for public comment for 120 days, starting on May 15. Verizon and other broadband providers are all for it, while Netflix and others would rather fight off a horde of Hollywood supervillains than see the Internet service providers hold all the power.
Enlisting Public Support
Never mind that Netflix’s deals with Comcast or Verizon don’t fit neatly into the net neutrality bucket. (Those arrangements have more to do with how the streams reach those networks, rather than the ISPs hobbling that network traffic.)
The streaming provider—perhaps tired of warning the press or politicians about the dangers of net neutrality, or paying off broadband providers for decent speeds—is directly addressing end users now. And, en masse, we can be a powerful bunch … that is, when we’re inspired to act.
Just this week, PCWorld noted that the FCC’s website suddenly got hammered by net neutrality comments Monday and Tuesday, even though the issue had been open for public discussion for weeks.
The catalyst? It wasn’t an insightful article from a tech website or vaunted newspaper technology columnist. The spark was this 13-minute segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight:
Netflix is a business, one that doesn’t want to see costs balloon as every ISP starts extorting money for faster service. But it’s also trying its damnedest to position itself as a champion battling those who would threaten our online way of life.
There’s plenty of reason to balk at that notion, but it’s at least doing one thing—calling attention to an important issue during a time that will decide how the Internet ebbs and flows (or trickles) for years to come.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user t.ohashi