Senate bill protects your right to binge-watch Netflix and kitten videos

Senate bill protects your right to binge-watch Netflix and kitten videos

Summary: Bill aims to protect cord-cutters and those watching online video from suffering bandwidth limitations imposed by carriers. But the bill has some other elements that may ultimately cause it to fail.


My wife and I are avid Netflix consumers. We both have DVD accounts, but the real action is the online video service. We like to watch entire series from end-to-end. Over the course of many months, we watched all the Star Trek series, for example. It's wonderful.

Right now, we're deeply immersed in what my wife calls "The Nucky Show," a program on HBO Go. It's really Boardwalk Empire, a brilliant HBO series about corruption in Atlantic City back in the 1920s. As an old kid from Jersey, I can appreciate many of the regional touchstones the show presents. It's brilliant TV.

The thing is, we're not watching this stuff through our cable TV service, we're watching it through our Internet feed, which also happens to be via cable.

And we're not alone. As Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols reported yesterday, the Internet belongs to YouTube and Netflix. Netflix alone consumes 31.62 percent of all downstream traffic in the United States during peak hours. YouTube follows behind, dominating 18.69 percent.

Don't even get me started about YouTube.

The other day, I got sucked into a whole hour watching thousands of dominos drop in some wildly amazing demonstrations. One single kitten or puppy gateway video and I can be down for the count for hours, until my wife snaps me out of the "awww, puppies!" stupor that can set in.

I admit it. I know my weaknesses. I've learned (mostly) to avoid the evil, wicked cute and have managed to get my life back. It's a day-by-day thing, but I haven't watched a kitten video in over a month. But there were those dominos.

As Steven's stats show, I am not alone in my fascination with old 90s TV series and tiny little furballs. This is a problem that extends to the highest levels, all the way up to the Rockefellers.

You may know the Rockefellers as old, old oil, as huge stakeholders in America shaky, bailed-out banking system, or even as the namesakes for Christmas skating joy in New York City.

But there's one Rockefeller who may well be on the side of all of us online viewers: Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (who goes by "Jay" rather than summon up memories of his famous oil tycoon ancestor among his constituents).

The current chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has proposed a bill entitled, "Consumer Choice in Online Video Act."

Think of this as a specialized version of net neutrality aimed specifically at online video.

The idea is that as more and more people see the value in services like Netflix over their normal, whopping cable bills, they're likely to cut the viewership cord on their cable TV service and want to watch Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube using their cable modems and other Internet connections.

Rockefeller's legislation would specifically prohibit carriers from traffic modulation for these sorts of services. Basically, it means that if his bill goes through, you could still watch old reruns of the A-Team without worrying about whether the plan won't come together because it's too pixelated or the bandwidth has been squeezed like Murdock's brain.

There's another twist to Rockefeller's legislation that appears to be specifically targeted at networks like CBS, the parent company of ZDNet. You may recall that for a period of time this summer, CBS and Time Warner had a disagreement on fees, which resulted in some programming being temporarily denied from viewers.

Rockefeller's bill extends to this issue and the related issue of programming availability. His bill, as The Hill describes it, would "bar TV companies from pulling their online content during programming disputes," and "limit the ability of companies to use contractual agreements to block websites from buying access to video content."

The second is a way for the bill to, essentially, require content providers or networks (it's not clear yet how that distinction is being made in the bill) to license their content to services like Netflix. That way, if you want your Game of Thrones on something other than HBO, presumably you'd be able to get it.

Some thoughts on this

Personally (and since this is an issue that concerns our parent company, I have to stress that this is my personal opinion only), I think the bill is an over-reach. Rockefeller conflates two very different issues into one bill, and that will probably spell its doom.

All issues of net neutrality are essential to our future as a society. Traffic sculpting must not be allowed, whether it's in the form of old Farscape episodes, kitten videos, or content like this article. Any legislation that prevents traffic sculpting to the benefit of the carriers is very important. Otherwise, individual pipe-providers will be able to decide what you get to see and what you get to watch. That's a freedom of speech issue, among other things.

But forcing content vendors to sell programming or provide content is a completely different issue. That's not about freedom of speech. That's about intellectual property ownership and the extent or limits of the rights associated with that ownership.

Look, I'm as annoyed as anyone that certain programs can't easily be watched online, but property owners have — with the one disturbing exception of eminent domain — have always had the right to choose when and to whom they will (or will not) sell their property.

Rockefeller's bill seems to abrogate that right, and it seems to arbitrarily target a specific class of content owners: producers of video entertainment programming.

This seems like a long shot, and it probably won't pass. I'm not even sure it should pass.

The point, though, is that if John D IV really wanted to accomplish something, he should have hit and hit hard with a bill that just does one thing, and does it right: support net neutrality.

But the problem is this: he's a politician. When have politicians ever done one thing, and done it right?

My guess is that the Consumer Choice in Online Video Act will be a one act show that will be canceled before it begins.

Topics: After Hours, Censorship, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • It's DOA

    I'm in the camp of users looking for broadband without restrictions. My cable provider forces me to buy a more expensive cable package so I can get the best speeds. What I need is competition for broadband without silly bundling deals. The phone company in my area presents the same nonsense and they can't deliver what I need. So, I'm up the creek without a paddle at the moment.

    The senator is misguided if he believes he can tell a company to give their product away!
  • He's a politician, but...

    ...he doesn't need the job, as he's independently wealthy (I'm not even sure he accepts his Congressional salary). And as I'm under the impression he's close to retirement anyway, he can certainly afford to do the right thing which is to write a nice, simple bill enjoining ISPs from discriminating between content providers. It won't make Republicans happy and may not make a lot of Democrats happy either, but he can force Senators to go on the record with where they stand on the issue, so their constituents can make informed choices.

    Too bad that's not what he did.
    John L. Ries
  • You STILL have cable?

    I dumped my cable (tv) subscription around 3 years ago. Kept the broadband, but lowered the speed so my bill was under 50.00 (49.95 to be exact). That's all I'm willing to spend each month. I get local HD channels for free, so I can still watch CBS, NBC, ABC, etc. programs. Netflix DVD rental (No streaming) gives me variaty without being drawn into a 4+ hour marathon of tv show watching.

    I just got tired of paying for cable and STILL having to watch tv ads. If you pay for a service, You should not be subjected to having to deal with ads IMO. Why would I pay a cable company and still allow them to retain the other revenue stream? It's a personal choice that I've enjoyed for sometime.

    Hulu (non-paid version) is great IMO, because they keep thier ads short (30 seconds and usually only 3 ads each time.) and too the point. Cable ads go on and on. If i'm using the service for free, I accept the idea that revenue needs to be generated through targeted ads. I'm not willing to pay and still be subjected to the same as the free service.

    You can survive just fine without 100+ channels of junk IMO. There are only a few programs I miss, but I'm still alive and kicking...with a total savings of just over $2,000 (based on 36 months) in my bank.

    ~Best wishes keeping what you earned.
  • Cats and Dogs

    Dogs or OK, but when it comes to videos and cuddly critters nothing beats cats.
  • Comcast's Answer

    Don't limit your bandwidth simply add additional charges if you go over the cap.
    Would this bill address that or simply make it where internet providers can not downgrade your service. If that's the case does nothing. Providers will simply make more revenue by allowing you to go over.
  • The solution to this isn't some asinine

    Net Neutrality law, but metered bandwidth like your gas or electric bill. You use more bits, you pay more $$$.
    • Net neutrality was the customary policy...

      ...before most people ever heard of it. And it is a lot easier to sell bandwidth than it is to sell gigabits.

      I'll make a modest proposal, though, that you probably won't like:

      ISPs (end user or backbone) whose sole business is Internet service (to include VOIP and other network-based services) can do whatever they like with their networks as long as they say what they're doing, don't cheat anyone, don't rely on government-owned facilities (to include satellites), have viable competitors, and are not the beneficiaries of state-conferred franchises, past or present. All others would have to observe net neutrality, which would simply be defined not discriminating on the basis of the source or destination of the traffic (which has been part of the TCP/IP protocol suite since its inception). This definition would be written into statute, and would thus not be subject to the vagaries of bureaucratic regulation (but might be subject to interpretation by judges and juries).

      John L. Ries
      • Providers could...

        ...give certain protocols higher or lower priority in the interest of improving throughput.
        John L. Ries
  • Hopefully they don't say if we like our bandwidth we can keep it

    Next u know Obama will be forcing us on expensive plans to pay for subsidized plans for his voter slaves just as obamacare does.
  • obviously designed to fail

    Only an idiot (or a politician) would tie the two issues together and expect it to pass. By putting them together Mr. Rockefeller gets to roll out a bill that citizens actually want without the risk of actually having it mean anything. When it fails everyone who votes against it will get to point at half of it as the reason they voted against it, but none of them will be foolish enough to split this into separate bills that actually could be passed. And by the time they add on a few more amendments, like the one funding paving a new road in the senator's mother's best friend's sister's neighborhood, there will be plenty of stuff in the bill to use for excuses to kill it.
  • Respectfully truthful

    Most people like Rockefeller talk out of both sides of their mouth. By making this some kind of double bill that will never pass, he tried to make both sides happy. Instead of being on the consumers side he went with his big money buddies, the decision makes at the companies discussed in you're piece.
    When you try to make both sides happy you get new crap legislation that ends up making no difference other than WE pay more for the new regulations.
    Rule to go by, when it's from the left its usually never right...