December 18, 2014 4:31 PM

The Netflix/Comcast Dispute: Interconnection "Principles" vs. Consumer Rights?

[Note: This is the first post, in a series, in which we'll look at the Netflix/Cogent/Comcast congestion episode from earlier this year.  The focus will be on understanding this event from a different perspective than most of us may have thought about it before.  This series looks further into the question I raised in my last post which is: are existing laws--adequately enforced--sufficient to protect consumers?  For purposes of readability, the full citation of relevant facts has been placed at the end of this post.]

In my last post, I started to look at whether the protracted congestion--and associated consumer service disruptions--caused by the recent Netflix/Cogent/Comcast interconnection dispute indicated that the traditional voluntary agreement structure of the Internet was broken, or whether existing laws might not be enough to prevent protracted consumer disruption.  In a recent article, Prof. Susan Crawford, an advocate for all things Net Neutrality, also highlights the frustrations of customers caught in the middle of the Netflix/Cogent/Comcast dispute,

No federal, state, or local government exercises any oversight over this handful of interconnection points. No Better Business Bureau watches over how your requests for data are being treated.
Prof. Crawford is right to question why consumers got stuck with the short end of this wholesale dispute.  But, I disagree with Prof. Crawford's assumption that new laws--specific to the issue Netflix and Cogent blame for the protracted congestion--are needed. 

As noted in the last post, more specific contracts, and quicker enforcement by wholesale partners are one way to prevent extended periods of consumer frustration.  Similarly, there are also existing laws designed to protect consumers from intentional, or knowing, actions of third parties that prevent consumers from receiving services they believe they are purchasing.

The FTC has expressed concern that it will lose jurisdiction over Net Neutrality-related matters if the FCC decides to reclassify broadband as a Title II service (the FTC Act specifically exempts "common carriers").  Even though I was aware the FTC had asserted jurisdiction to handle Net Neutrality complaints, I didn't really think about the how important the FTC could be. . . until I started looking really closely at the Netflix/Cogent/Comcast congestion episode from earlier this year.   

"It's About the Principle"

When Netflix filed its Petition to Deny the Comcast-TWC merger  in August, I was interested in learning the circumstances that led to Netflix's direct interconnection agreement with Comcast.  I expected to see a pretty basic recitation of how Comcast kept unreasonably increasing interconnection prices, thereby forcing Netflix into lower quality interconnection arrangements.  

Instead, though, the brief spends a lot of time establishing that Netflix's principle--of not paying the ISP any portion of the costs of delivering its content to its customers--was the exclusive factor it relied upon in choosing vendors to deliver its customers' traffic.  The absence of any comparison of various input prices/vendor alternatives available to Netflix seemed odd.  The notion that Netflix was defending a not-purely-economic principle seemed odder still. 

The antitrust analytical framework (which was the ostensible basis for Netflix's opposition to the Comcast-TWC merger) recognizes economic efficiency, and not any unique firm-specific view of how an industry should work.  Yet, Netflix has never indicated that its decisions were based on immediate cost/price effects.  It has even clarified that the costs being imposed by the ISPs are not significant, nor has it raised prices for customers served by the offending ISPs.  See, e.g., this blog post.  Level 3 made the same argument in 2010--that it's not the cost, it's the principle. See this Ars Technica article.   

Prof. Susan Crawford, in the article mentioned above, also observes:

The FCC will find that the money amounts involved in these deals are low at the moment. It's the naked threat posed to the future that is the problem. . . .
The "naked threat posed to the future" may or may not be cause for concern, but--if this threat does not limit the immediate ability of a firm to deliver service--can a firm's reaction to such a threat excuse its performance under its customer contracts?  

It's possible that, for many months at least, Comcast customers (and those of certain other ISPs) were paying for service that Netflix knew to be substandard.  If Netflix failed to take any action to provide the grade of service for which its customers were paying, or to let prospective customers know they would be receiving degraded service for an indeterminate period, then it's possible that enforcement of existing laws might prevent future consumer abuses.    

The Federal Trade Commission Act

Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" that affect commerce.  An act or practice may be found to be unfair where it "causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition."  See, FTC "Unfairness Statement."  The FTC is likely to find an act or practice to be deceptive if "there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer's detriment." FTC Deception Statement

The standards for unfairness and deception are independent of each other. While a specific act or practice may be both unfair and deceptive, the FTC may find a violation of Section 5 if the act or practice is either unfair or deceptive.

In the next post, we'll look at what happened and whether Netflix's 2013 change in the way it delivered content to the country's largest ISPs seemed reasonably calculated to efficiently deliver content to customers, or, if not, whether it seemed designed to promote another goal.  

***Relevant Facts***

Here is a brief recitation of the relevant facts for purposes of our discussion.  Unless otherwise cited, the facts are taken from the Declaration of Ken Florance  , Netflix's Vice President of Content Delivery, submitted in support of Netflix's Petition to Deny the Comcast-TWC Merger (FCC Docket No. 14-57).

For most of the history of Netflix's streaming video delivery service, Netflix believes that Comcast has required Netflix's third party vendors to pay an additional fee to cover some (or all) of the cost of Netflix-specific capacity augmentation at interconnection points.  Netflix describes 3 instances between 2009 and 2010 where it believes CDNs needed to purchase additional capacity to alleviate congestion issues. Florance Declaration ¶¶ 29-41.

Netflix acknowledges that the volume of its traffic does increase demand for ISP-bound capacity at its vendors' points of interconnection with Comcast.  Moreover, these costs are incremental and specific to the particular point of exchange between Netflix's Internet transit vendor and the ISP.  Florance Declaration at ¶ 46.  

When its traffic was carried on third party CDN networks, Netflix was aware of the costs being incurred on its behalf, but "in the short term Netflix was insulated from a sudden price increase." Florance Declaration at ¶ 39.  While Netflix was using CDNs, its performance over cable systems seemed uniformly better than even on the most advanced telco systems. 

While its service was good using 3rd party CDNs, Netflix explains that, "[a]fter the Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3 CDN congestion episodes [2009-2010], Netflix began transitioning its traffic from CDNs (all of whom, we believed, were paying Comcast's new terminating access fee) to transit providers in our continued effort to avoid terminating access fees."  Florance Declaration at ¶ 40.  (dates in brackets added).  Thus, in February, 2012, Netflix signed an agreement with Cogent for Internet transit service.  Cogent began transitioning traffic to Netflix in August 2012.  Florance Declaration ¶ 41.

Based on customer complaints about service quality, Netflix's service deteriorated immediately upon switching to Cogent transit and progressively deteriorated over the next year. Florance, at ¶ 51.  However, beginning in October 2013, Netflix reports a very high level of customer dissatisfaction and cancellations, due to "Netflix's inability to do anything to change the situation."  Florance ¶ 52 (emphasis added).    

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