Rant : T-Mobile vs The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – BingeOn
If you have been following the news over the past few weeks, you have likely been hearing that many tech companies are bashing T-Mobile over how the T-Mobile BingeOn program may be violating Net Neutrality with how it “optimizes” streaming video. This attack was spearheaded by a scathing report released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and was made worse by T-Mobile’s outspoken CEO, John Legere’s response (this really should not come as a shock). Normally I am a huge supporter of the work done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation but in this case I feel they are wrong, and here is why.
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In the spirit of being transparent, I would like to start this out by disclosing that I have been a T-Mobile Customer for a bit over 2 years. As I mentioned previously, I am also a huge supporter of the EFF and I go out of my way to attend conferences to listen to the talks given by EFF employees. These views are my views and I know not everyone will agree with me on this. I am also not a lawyer. Please feel free to get in contact with me if you have any questions or would like to confirm anything.
Lets first take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s findings on T-Mobile’s BingeOn Program which can be found on their website. The report highlights a few facts that I will not dispute such as their deconstruction of what T-Mobile’s BingeOn service essentially is – A method of traffic shaping to limit video streams to 480p by limiting traffic to around 1.5 Mbps. They further point out that T-Mobile is not only doing this traffic shaping with “BingeOn Partners” but every video stream provider. . Many other tech websites have jumped aboard to bash T-Mobile, essentially echoing many of the same flawed points that were pointed out on the EFF’s report.Keep this report handy as we will come back to it in a few moments
Next, we will look at the product page for T-Mobile BingeOn which can be found at T-Mobile.com. This website also shares many facts that cannot be disputed such as a list of “BingeOn Content Providers” that allow customers to stream without using any of their High Speed Data Allotments as well as a message that customers will also be able to “watch 3x more video” on services that are not BingeOn Content Providers. Furthermore details are outlined for content providers who wish to partner up with T-Mobile as well as other “perks” for customers. T-Mobile refuses to use the term “throttling”, which the EFF is quick to slap them for, rather resorting to more marketing friendly “mobile optimization”. Finally, the FAQ section also includes a section containing instructions to turn BingeOn off if you wish to enjoy your content in anything above DVD quality.
Turning BingeOn Off is as simple as logging into your T-Mobile account at https://my.t-mobile.com, selecting “Profile” and you will find a switch under “Media”
Now, lets go back to the EFF report for a moment and I want to point out a few things where they intentionally mislead readers:
- The EFF attacks T-Mobile for applying their Traffic Shaping to non BingeOn customers however they fail to point out that T-Mobile was indeed upfront with the fact that they are doing this as indicated by the fact that customers streaming from non-BingeOn Content Providers will use “3x less data”. The EFF says this is in the “fine print” of the FAQs but the banner image is fairly large if you ask me.
- The EFF points out that T-Mobile’s Traffic Shaping may result in buffering/throttling for content that is not available in formats less then 480p – While I will not dispute this possibility I will say that this would likely be an edge-case as most video streaming sites such as YouTube render all videos to 144p, 240p and 360p. Remember in much of the world, an internet connection capable of 1 Mbps is a rarity so most video streaming sites account for this.
- The EFF slaps T-Mobile for using Deep Packet Inspection to determine the traffic type and based on the wording they used, the post has the ability to make many readers think that T-Mobile is potentially spying on customers which is patently absurd. Simply relying on HTTP headers is not the best way to do things so using Deep Packet Inspection makes the most sense.
- Not once in the post do they make mention that the customers are ultimately in control of whether or not their service is impacted by BingeOn – In fact, the word “Choice” does not appear once in the entire post which is shocking as the EFF is essentially a consumer advocacy group.
- Not only does the term “Choice” not appear in the article once, the words “off” or “disable” also do not appear in the article at all.
I do know that the term “intentionally mislead” readers is a very strong statement however I feel that it is warranted in this case as the screenshots above show that T-Mobile is being very open with what BingeOn does.
T-Mobile on the other-hand is not without guilt here as they could have done a better job with the method they use to give customers control over the service. Here are a few points that T-Mobile should take away from this:
- As BingeOn does cause a noticeable difference in video quality that may upset some customers who did not read all of the announcements (delivered on their bill and via SMS) – I would have like to have seen this being an “Opt-In” service by default rather then an Opt-Out. This was mentioned as an ideal option by the EFF and I will agree.
- T-Mobile should offer a few more ways for customers to easily toggle BingeOn such as Android Home Screen Widgets, SMS command and a quick toggle in the My T-Mobile application. A SMS command should be included for devices that T-Mobile does not provide a Native T-Mobile MyAccount app (Ubuntu Mobile, Windows, Tablets) or for customers that choose not to install carrier apps.
- John Legere’s Response was a bit course… but we really should not expect anything different from him as this is the reason many (including myself) like him.
- T-Mobile should add an additional toggle to allow customers to exclude non-BingeOn Content Providers from being subject to the same Traffic Shaping rules.
Normally this would be the end of this article however there is one thing that I eluded to – the FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules for The Open Internet which can be summarized into 3 basic rules.
- No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
- No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
T-Mobile’s BingeOn service conforms to 2 of these rules but can be a bit problematic with the “No Throttling” clause however as T-Mobile allows customers to enable/disable BingeOn, it may not be as problematic as some believe. Customers may opt-out of BingeOn if they wish with absolutely no financial penalty aside from loosing the free Vudu video rental (unlimited customers only).
As a T-Mobile Customer – I am actually enjoying the BingeOn service and have no plans to disable it any time soon. It has come in handy on several occasions (road trips) and I don’t want to see it go away any time soon. As the FCC’s Net Neutrality Open Internet Order was designed to promote Innovation – just imagine how much extra mobile data you will have available in your account to do other things that would normally be chewed up with online video. The screenshot above shows how much my data use has dropped thanks to BingeOn.