Everything you really need to know about net neutrality, in one passive-aggressive Netflix error message

Despite its frequent appearances in tech news and congressional debate over the past couple months, net neutrality remains something of an enigma to many ordinary consumers. Telecommunications acts, pay-to-play policies, “Open Internet” — cool, okay. But the bottom line, behind all that jargoned rhetoric: How, exactly, does this affect the way I use the Internet every day?

Netflix seems to have found an all-too-relevant, if unabashedly passive-aggressive, way to answer that question: Users on both Verizon and AT&T have, per Quartz, recently begun seeing error messages blaming slow video speeds on their Internet service providers. Yuri Victor, a designer and developer at Vox (and formerly, the Post!), grabbed this screenshot of the message:

And that is, in a nutshell, exactly what the whole debate’s about. Basically, you’ll recall, net neutrality is just the idea that Internet service providers — like Verizon and AT&T — should treat all the traffic in their pipes the same way, even if there’s a lot of it. Netflix does indeed generate huge amounts of traffic. Like network-clogging, lag-inducing amounts — by some measures, 30 percent of all North American traffic during peak hours.

Netflix argues that, when ISPs like Verizon prioritize some traffic over others, they become responsible for that video lag. But in a net neutral world, the service is saying, you won’t see any more error messages when you binge-watch “Orange is the New Black.” (Eureka! So that’s how this all affects me.)

There’s a flip side as well, of course: ISPs say the lag is Netflix’s fault for sending so much traffic, in the first place — something the service could theoretically remedy by paying for better access. And that, according to ISPs, would lead to fast, better service for everyone.

In either case, the error message does a pretty great job distilling the core conflict — who’s responsible for the lag? — in terms that make sense to your average SNL-streaming consumer. Even if there’s something offputtingly subtweet-y about the whole thing.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · June 3