YouTube says T-Mobile is downgrading videos. Does that violate net neutrality?

T-Mobile's 'Binge On' program downgrades video quality for almost everyone, YouTube complained this week. That could violate net neutrality, which forbids Internet providers from throttling traffic except in special circumstances.

Richard Drew/AP/File
YouTube argues that T-Mobile is downgrading all streaming video, not just that of "Binge On" partners. Here, people are shown passing a T-Mobile store in New York on October 14, 2015.

When T-Mobile introduced its “Binge On” streaming program last month, the premise was simple: watch Netflix, Hulu, and other services at lower-than-HD quality on your phone, and that video won’t count against your monthly data allowance.

But on Tuesday, YouTube accused T-Mobile of lowering the quality of all video delivered to its subscribers, not just the video that’s part of the Binge On program. 

“Reducing data charges can be good for users, but it doesn’t justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent,” a YouTube spokesman told The Wall Street Journal.

T-Mobile automatically enables Binge On for any customers who have a data plan of 3 GB or more per month, including those with unlimited data plans, although customers can choose to opt out of the program. And T-Mobile applies the lower-quality streaming, which it says in advertisements is at least “DVD quality,” to all video apps. In other words: customers can opt out of Binge On, but they might not know how – and if they don’t, they’ll find all their video, not just what’s delivered from Binge On partners, down-sampled to less than HD quality.

YouTube, owned by Alphabet (formerly Google), says this policy runs afoul of net neutrality rules put in place earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission. Those rules say that Internet providers may not throttle traffic flowing across their networks, except for technical reasons, such as easing network congestion. By throttling video data, T-Mobile is unfairly discriminating against all video applications, YouTube says, and interfering with customers’ ability to access important services. T-Mobile didn’t directly respond to YouTube’s accusations, but chief executive officer John Legere tweeted on Tuesday that customers have “complete control to turn [Binge On] on/off at will.”

Binge On has already caught the attention of some net neutrality advocates who argue that it and other “zero rating” programs offer an unfair advantage to content providers who can afford to make deals with Internet providers. The FCC has said that it will examine zero-rating policies on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they violate net neutrality principles, but so far it hasn’t publicly voiced any concerns about such programs. At a meeting in November, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler described Binge On as “highly innovative and highly competitive.”

FCC officials sent letters earlier this month to Comcast, AT&T, and T-Mobile, asking the companies to explain the technical and policy details of their zero-rating programs. Company representatives will meet with the FCC early in 2016, according to The Washington Post.

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