March 6, 2017 | By Jeremy Gillula and Kerry Sheehan

NY State AG’s Lawsuit Against ISP Shows Why We Need Net Neutrality Protections

And Proves What Time Warner Cable Can Do Worse

Back in 2013, a couple of Internet pranksters who were fed up with Time Warner Cable’s (TWC) dismal customer service released a parody video and website that asked, “What Can We [TWC] do Worse?”  In response, the company launched an aggressive takedown campaign against the parodists. But thanks to the New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman, we now know exactly what Time Warner Cable did “do worse.”

Earlier this month, AG Schneiderman filed a lawsuit alleging that Spectrum-Time Warner Cable (Spectrum-TWC) repeatedly misled customers and used its gatekeeping position to extort money out of content providers. If the allegations are true, the complaint provides several stunning examples of the kind of bad behavior we can expect from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the absence of meaningful net neutrality protections.

The AG’s complaint sets forth a host of specific facts, emails, and other statements that suggest that Spectrum-TWC repeatedly deceived its customers about speed of the their Internet connections and routinely provided its subscribers’ with equipment that was incapable of achieving promised connection speeds.

But that wasn’t their only alleged misdeed. According to the complaint, Spectrum-TWC also extracted interconnection fees from backbone Internet and online content providers. Spectrum-TWC knew it needed to increase its interconnection capacity in order to ensure its customers could reliably access popular web services, but refused to do so. As a result, Internet users accessing those services experienced slower speeds and service interruptions. TWC offered to add capacity only if the backbone or content providers agreed to start paying for it.

For example, when Netflix failed to pay,

the quality of the Netflix video streams received by Spectrum-TWC subscribers dipped significantly during peak hours . . .This resulted in subscribers getting poorer quality streams during the very hours when they were most likely to access Netflix.

Once Netflix agreed to pay, subscribers’ viewing experience improved.

Riot Games, the producer and distributor for the hugely popular online multiplayer game League of Legends, was also targeted by Spectrum-TWC. According to the complaint, until Riot Games agreed to pay Spectrum-TWC for access to its subscribers, Spectrum-TWC refused to give its subscribers reliable access to Riot’s content — contrary to the carrier’s public promises.

This lawsuit deserves particular attention now in light of repeated threats to erode net neutrality protections at the federal level, including the Open Internet Order the FCC adopted in 2015.  Opponents of net neutrality rules often insist that net neutrality rules are a solution in search of a problem.  If even half the allegations in the complaint are true, it’s strong evidence that the problem is real. 

Of course, opponents of FCC rules might also suggest that this lawsuit shows there is no need for the FCC to intervene – state attorneys general can take care of it using consumer protection laws, right?  Wrong.  Welcome as the NYAG’s suit is, it’s no substitute for uniform baseline rules that can protect subscribers and innovators nationwide.

Moreover, while the FCC’s Open Internet Order may not be perfect, it appears that the Order is already doing some good: it caused Spectrum-TWC to temper some of its bad practices.  For example, after the Order came into effect, Spectrum-TWC agreed at last to resolve a dispute with another service provider, Cogent, and add additional capacity to improve the experience of some of its customers.

Unfortunately, newly minted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has expressed his desire to get rid of the agency’s net neutrality rules, and several members of Congress are also itching to roll back these protections.  In the coming months, we’ll be working to rally support for the open Internet—and we’ll need your help. Watch this space -- and be ready to stand with us in defending net neutrality.

 


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