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Netflix’s Battle for Net Neutrality Could Look Like This

By Betsy Isaacson 

If the war over net neutrality is going to be fought in the court of public opinion, as Netflix suggested last week, then the company could learn a lot from one of its most pernicious rivals: BitTorrent.

Netflix said in a warning to investors that if Internet service providers (ISPs) started slowing down its streaming thanks to a recent federal court ruling knocking down net neutrality, the company would rally its members to “demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”

The ruling allows ISPs to legally discriminate against some websites and services. In other words, it could mean no more binge watching our favorite shows on the streaming service — and maybe not getting to use Netflix at all.

That’s something BitTorrent knows a lot about.

In 2007, Comcast began aggressively throttling, or slowing down, BitTorrent traffic. The peer-to-peer protocol lets people transfer large files without storing them anywhere, and is used to share everything from patches for games like World of Warcraft to pirated content like just-released movies. Comcast started targeting BitTorrent, blocking uploads of complete files and in some cases even masquerading as BitTorrent users, supposedly to prevent congestion. BitTorrent’s user base fought back by investigating Comcast’s throttling techniques, confronting Comcast spokespeople and distributing fixes for those who still wanted to use BitTorrent at full speed.

The entire affair was a debacle for Comcast.

Still, there’s really no indication Netflix users would react to throttling the same way BitTorrent fans did. BitTorrent users are notoriously tech-savvy and loyal; Netflix users, in contrast, exhibit what analysts at innovation research firm GfK call a “softness” to their loyalty — a willingness to switch brands should Netflix experience a crisis or a more convenient competitor emerge.

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