An ongoing study first reported by Bloomberg reveals the extent to which major American telecom companies are throttling video content on apps such as YouTube and Netflix on mobile phones in the wake of the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealing national net neutrality protections last December.
Researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst used a smartphone app called Wehe, which has been downloaded by about 100,000 users, to track when wireless carriers engage in data "differentiation," or when companies alter download speeds depending on the type of content, which violates a key tenet of the repealed rules.
Between January and May of this year, Wehe detected differentiation by Verizon 11,100 times; AT&T 8,398 times; T-Mobile 3,900 times; and Sprint 339 times. David Choffnes, one of the study's authors and the app's developer, told Bloomberg that YouTube was the top target, but carriers also slowed down speeds for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and the NBC Sports app.
Apple initially blocked Wehe from its App Store, but changed course in January following public outrage. A Motherboard report on the fight to make the app available outlined how Wehe allows users to see how their wireless carriers are treating various video apps compared with speeds for data such as text messages or emails. The report also offered this screenshot of the app to show how it detects those different speeds:
Although wireless carriers still throttled videos under the repealed net neutrality provisions—thanks in part to a loophole that allowed them to offer plans that skirted the rules—the FCC was looking into concerns about the practice before Trump-appointed Ajit Pai took over the agency, and public interest groups have long demanded that federal regulators take action to stop it.
Instead, Pai stopped that inquiry and the agency commissioners voted along party lines to repeal net neutrality protections, giving internet service providers (ISPs) more power to decide how to treat content. While carriers claim that video throttling is not automatic, and is part of necessary network management, in the absence of national regulations, the new research has provoked heightened alarm.
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Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointed to Verizon slowing down data speeds as Santa Clara County emergency responders battled the largest fire in California's history. Verizon claimed it was a "customer-support mistake," but county counsel James Williams said it proves that ISPs "will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety," and "that is exactly what the Trump administration's repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages."
That example, Gillula told Bloomberg, demonstrates "that ISPs are happy to use words like 'unlimited' and 'no throttling' in their public statements, but then give themselves the right to throttle certain traffic by burying some esoteric language in the fine print" of service contracts. "As a result, it's especially important that consumers have tools like this to measure whether or not their ISP is throttling certain services."
Florian Schaub, a digital privacy expert at the University of Michigan, agreed that "efforts like Wehe are an important approach to detect whether internet service providers are engaging in traffic shaping," especially "now that net neutrality has been repealed by the FCC."
States are fighting back against throttling and the net neutrality repeal by enacting local legislation, though campaigners continue to call for restoring national rules through a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that has narrowly passed the Senate, but still lacks the support needed from Republicans in the House.
However, even restoring those protections likely would not be enough to stop video throttling on mobile phones. As Choffnes told Motherboard in January, when it comes to wireless carriers, "We didn't have net neutrality even before the rules changed... All the carriers are doing content-based throttling, specifically with video."