Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

youtube app

Wireless carriers are throttling video content on various mobile phone apps, including YouTube, according to an ongoing study. (Photo: homegets.com/cc)

Confirming Dangers of FCC's Net Neutrality Repeal, New Study Shows Telecoms Throttling YouTube, Netflix, and Other Apps

"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."

Jessica Corbett

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or when companies alter download speeds depending on the type of content, which violates a key tenet of the repealed rules.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:

Wehe

Although wireless carriers still throttled videos under the repealed net neutrality provisions—thanks in part to a loophole that allowed them to offer plans that skirted the rules—the FCC was looking into concerns about the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.

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."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of 'Apparent War Crimes' During May Assault on Gaza

"Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby."

Jessica Corbett ·


As Progressives Eye Potential 'Jolt of Momentum,' Nina Turner Nabs Women's March Endorsement

"This isn't about Nina versus any opponent; this is about the people versus big money."

Andrea Germanos ·


Unless Congress Acts, 20 Million People Will Lose Unemployment Aid in Just 41 Days: Analysis

"Democrats should do whatever it takes to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring."

Jake Johnson ·


Warning of Climate Chaos, New 350.org Campaign Demands Fed 'Stop Fossil Fuel Finance'

"Not only does the Fed have legal authority to stop fossil fuel finance—it's their responsibility."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Vile': Biden DHS to Turn Away Migrant Families Under 'Expedited Removal' Policy

"This administration continues to seek efficiency over safety and due process for migrant families."

Julia Conley ·