December 23, 2014 1:07 PM

The Netflix/Comcast Dispute Pt. 3: Did Netflix Mislead Its Customers?

We've, so far--in parts 1 and 2 of this series--looked at some of the justifications Netflix provides for providing inferior service to its customers served by Comcast for months on end, beginning at some time in 2013.  See, e.g., this Netflix ex parte letter, at p. 2. also, slides 33/34 of this ex parte presentation.   We could finish up by taking a look at each side's claim that the other was the real "cause" of the congestion--but that would miss the point of whether interconnection rules, or the lack thereof, were responsible for consumer service disruptions in this case.

Absent any truly shocking new information coming to light (such as learning that Netflix's contract with Cogent was intended to harm consumers, for example, by expressly forbidding Cogent from purchasing supplemental capacity to relieve congestion for its retail customers), it doesn't matter which party is "right" as a matter of Internet policy.  Rather, the immediate question is whether consumer disruption was the unavoidable consequence of this "policy dispute" (though it was unclear whether the dispute between Netflix, Cogent, and Comcast was a "policy," or ordinary business, dispute when it was settled).  

Netflix Knew Congestion Would Impair It's Service

In its Terms of Use for its customers, Netflix designates that Delaware law control any dispute with its customers.  See, Netflix Terms of Use, para. 11.b.  As was mentioned in the blog  dealing with the Cogent-Comcast interconnection agreement, Delaware law holds that "[a] party does not act in bad faith by relying on contract provisions for which that party bargained, where doing so simply limits advantages to another party."  

Thus, Netflix should/would have anticipated that Comcast would "rely[] on contract provisions for which [it] bargained."  Given that Comcast's actions were entirely predictable (and not in bad faith), Netflix would also have known that adherence to its "principle" (of not paying the ISP for transit) would lead to service-affecting levels of congestion for its customers.  So, if Netflix knew that the combination of its planned course of action and Comcast's predictable reaction would cause its customers to receive congestion-degraded service, did Netflix have any obligation to its customers under Section 5 of the FTC Act?

Was Netflix's Failure to Disclose Congestion an Unfair or Deceptive Practice?

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

It seems fairly clear that Netflix's provision of compromised service, without disclosure, was an "unfair practice" in the sense that consumers could not have anticipated, or avoided injury.  Moreover, it would be hard to speculate that Netflix's actions--of not notifying consumers to expect degraded service--had some countervailing consumer benefit.  Thus, let's look at whether Netflix also engaged in a deceptive act or practice.  

Netflix Knew It Was Selling Inferior Service.  According to Netflix, for the entire history of its streaming service, someone (a 3d party CDN) has always paid the ISP for the incremental capacity necessary to ensure its traffic was delivered without congestion. Florance Declaration  ¶¶ 29-41.  Furthermore, as even Comcast points out, Netflix's decision to artificially limit its transit vendors--based on Netflix's "principle" of not paying for ISP capacity or paying anyone that does--meant that these vendors' capacity between their networks and Comcast were bound to become overwhelmed, resulting in congestion.  See, e.g., Declaration of Kevin McElearney, Comcast, at ¶¶ 23-25  

Netflix has established that its Comcast customers received a "substandard" grade of service even though the consumer was paying for, and expected, the "standard" grade of service.  Florance Declaration ¶¶ 51-55.  Nonetheless, Netflix kept selling service to Comcast customers, knowing that--as long as its transit vendors' lacked sufficient throughput capacity at points of interconnection with Comcast--each incremental customer would contribute to the service degradation experienced by all Netflix/Comcast customers.  

Netflix Deceptively Failed to Disclose Its Comcast-Specific Service Level.  The FTC, in its 1983 Deception Statement, states that "the practice of offering a product for sale creates an implied representation that it is fit for the purposes for which it is sold." Deception Stmt., n.4.   The FTC has further explained that,

Where the seller knew, or should have known, that an ordinary consumer would need omitted information to evaluate the product or service . . . materiality will be presumed.
Id. Under the circumstances, and without knowing the extent, length, or degree of degradation to expect, it was impossible for an "ordinary" Comcast broadband consumer to evaluate prospective Netflix service.  Thus, Netflix's knowledge of, and omission of, relevant information about Netflix's Comcast-specific congestion service impairment was "material" and, therefore, deceptive.  

Consumer Protections Can't Be Ignored and Be the Basis for Interconnection Rules

Netflix tells the FCC that, "when Netflix's traffic was congested it did everything in its power--short of paying Comcast an access fee--to alleviate the congestion . . . ."  Netflix Petition to Deny at 62. (emphasis added).  The notion that Netflix "did everything in its power"--short of doing the one thing it knew would resolve its service disruptions, and what it ultimately did do--is fallacious, and simply another way of stating that Netflix did just what it intended to do.  

If the FCC believes that consumers will benefit from interconnection rules, it should adopt rules after careful consideration.  But the Commission should not to deceive itself into thinking that "consumer welfare" is served by preemptively granting concessions to prevent behavior that is otherwise flatly proscribed by existing consumer protection laws.

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