Netflix Reducing Streaming Quality in the UK During Coronavirus Crisis [Updated]

     March 19, 2020

[Update: BBC reports that Netflix has agreed to reduce its streaming quality in the UK for the next 30 days. Our original story follows below.]

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the resulting quarantines that have been implemented because of it have raised some interesting philosophical and litigious issues. Should taxpayer dollars be used to bolster business sectors who are too “essential” (or too inflexible) to weather the crisis? Should people be allowed to horde supplies only to price gouge and sell them back during times of need and scarcity? Should panic-buyers who stock up on toilet paper be sent for psychological evaluation? These are all debates worth having. But the question of increased Internet usage to unprecedented levels during the stay-at-home quarantine has raised another issue entirely.

As CNN reports, the European Union is apparently pressuring Netflix and other (unnamed) streaming services into reducing their streaming quality from HD (high-definition) to SD (standard-definition, ie old-school TV broadcast levels) during the crisis. Commissioner Thierry Breton, overseeing the EU market for 450+ million people, said streaming companies “all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation.”

There’s … a lot wrong with this approach, in my opinion. For starters, it’s unclear whether Breton is specifically taking Netflix to task and urging them to #SwitchToStandard, or whether he’s suggesting that at-home consumers somehow make the switch. That leads to consumer rights issues over what we pay for which services and just how far either the company or world governments can push the limits of those contracts. Add to that the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much data in support of a supposed bottleneck or “breaking of the internet”, and it’s clear to see why people have already responded negatively to the suggestion. The Commission itself admits that no Internet outages or adverse effects have yet to be reported.

Netflix followed up with their own statement:

“Commissioner Breton is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that the internet continues to run smoothly during this critical time. We’ve been focused on network efficiency for many years, including providing our open connect service for free to telecommunications companies.”

Which brings up another issue: Is Internet integrity the responsibility of the content-streaming services, the ISPs, or the national and local governments tasked with regulating it, where any regulation exists at all? That’s all wrapped up in the movement to make available Internet access a public utility like electricity or water.

However, the report also mentions that Mark Zuckerberg has revealed that Facebook is experiencing bigger surges than normal that’s testing the limits of their system. Maybe breaking the Internet wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.