Despite Legal Threats Google Begins Posting Warnings of ISP Throttling
July 7, 2014 5:52 PM
Google is taking net neutrality into its own hands, much like Netflix tried to
With net neutrality
taking a holiday
in the U.S., it's open season for
internet service providers (ISPs)
to throttle popular services -- particularly traffic-heavy ones -- if they don't pay fees. Both Google Inc. (
) (who owns the internet's most used video sharing service, YouTube) and Netflix, Inc. (
) have been on the receiving end of such demands.
found out the hard way
that even if it pays, it wouldn’t necessarily get its service fully restored. It found that connections from AT&T, Inc. (
), Verizon Communications Inc. (
), and others were still slow -- even after Netflix
paid its toll
. While it's possible there's a less sinister explanation one possibility is that these players are looking to
deteriorate the quality of Netflix's service to give their own video-on-demand offerings an edge
A frustrated Netflix responded by giving "warnings" when it detected slowdowns, deflecting the blame from the ISP. The ISPs
threatened to sue Netflix
, naturally accusing that Netflix had no way of telling whether the weakness was some sort of
purposeful network manipulation
(the ISP's fault) versus inevitable slowdown at peak traffic times (everyone's fault) or due to some flaw in Netflix's delivery system (Netflix's fault). The argument carried some weight and Netflix
from the warnings.
Now Google has offered up a similar set of warnings on YouTube. But it's doing so in a much more disciplined and thorough way. Google has done its homework, clearly.
The new "warnings" of sorts appeared as
part of an annual transparency effort
by Google. On May 29
, Google released its annual "
Video Quality Report
" -- which covers ISP performance in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Google's reports have traditionally featured "YouTube HD Verified" awards to ISPs that offer sufficient service and no signs of devious interference with
internet video traffic
. But this year there was a little extra feature added alongside the report itself.
Google is offering this blue widget to take users to reports to assess their network's performance versus other ISPs in the region, to assess who's to blame for a slowdown. [Image Source: Quartz]
Since the release of this year's report, a new blue widget bar now pops up in YouTube when slow video playback is encountered. The blue bar offers you a link to an analysis page that you can use to assess whether your ISP might be to blame and whether the cause might be organic (e.g. peak traffic) or artificial (e.g. network manipulation)
That page shows you statistics not only on your connection, but also chronological averages for your service provider at different times of day, for different kinds of content (e.g. low-quality, standard definition, and high definition). It also let's you compare that to other ISPs in your region or to ISPs in other regions.
Google's annual Video Quality Report [Image Source: Quartz]
In many ways Google's approach seems superior to Netflix's. First, while it implies blame on certain miscreant ISPs, it doesn't directly say that -- hence limiting its legal liability. Second, by showing averaged historic data from multiple ISPs and different regions, it backs up its claims with hard data. The only way a particular ISP would be effectively "blamed" by Google's analysis would be if the charts showed it to be clearly inferior to its peers.
Much like with the blame game, Google doesn't try to directly guess at the cause when it sees slowdown (which might cause it legal trouble) -- even if the ISP is clearly to blame. Rather it lets users look at usage trends on their ISP versus other ISPs in order to identify whether suspicious patterns are occurring.
The new feature went largely unnoticed when it was first introduced. Quartz's Zachary M. Seward and Herman Wong were perhaps the
first to report on the new warnings
, following the hoopla over Netflix's short-lived warnings campaign.
A warning is seen here in the wild. [Image Source: Quartz]
Google may indeed see legal threats over the program, but it's certainly gone to much greater lengths to avoid making hasty or legally dangerous statements. It's hard to find fault in what Google is offering the user -- clear information with which to assess slowdowns.
Netflix may look to restore warnings in some form, as it too internally maintains usage data. It makes that data available via its
, which covers 20 countries. If Google's warning scheme survives legal challenges, Netflix has a clear path to offering customers more meaningful warnings; warnings which still hand consumers to identify market manipulation and speak out against it.
"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)
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