Thinking critically in the face of common support

Recently Verizon has been getting a lot of flack for supposedly slowing down Netflix. There has been a lot of press regarding the issue, and in general as a supporter of net neutrality I think it shows what ISPs/content providers will do unless we force them to treat themselves as just a “dumb pipe” rather than give a “fast lane” if you will for corporations.

That being said,  there was recently a video on Reddit entitled “Proof that Verizon throttles Netflix streaming” with a supposed definitive video that Netflix is being throttled by Verizon. As I watched the video, I realized very quickly that there were a lot of explanations (one of which yes, could be throttling) for what was happening, and it was very clear the person in the video either had little knowledge regarding the issue at hand or purposefully ignored the other explanations for what they were seeing. I won’t go into the motive of the video taker, but here’s the jist of the video:

  • When I run the Netflix test video through my Verizon ISP, my bitrate on videos is low (~300kbps)
  • When I connect to a VPN first before accessing Netflix, my bitrate rockets upward (~7000kbps).
  • Thus, because a VPN is encrypting all my traffic and Verizon can’t see what sites I’m visiting (other than I’m connecting up to a VPN), and I’m getting much higher bitrates because of that, it must mean that Verizon is throttling my traffic based on them seeing that I’m going to Netflix.

Now because a lot of people don’t understand how the internet/VPNs/CDNs/etc work, let me make a quick analogy to give you an idea of the logic behind the above’s argument.

  • I went to my local McDonalds in New York City, and the line for food was around the block.
  • I traveled to Florida secretly without letting McDonald’s know, went to a McDonalds in Tampa at the same time as the NYC one, and there was no line!
  • Thus, McDonalds must be intentionally trying to slow me down from getting to my Big Macs.

It’s kind of a contrived analogy, but it allows you to see how the first argument falls apart — the following could be logical explanations:

  • That NYC McDonald’s was just busy at the time I went
  • The Tampa one just happens to not be busy at that same time
  • They are two completely different McDonalds that have different capacities to serve different amounts of people (Maybe the NYC McDonald’s should really open a second floor to house more people)
  • McDonald’s hates me and if they had known I was traveling to Tampa, would have made sure that the Tampa McDonald’s was busy.

So here’s how this relates to the original argument:

  • From your local computer to Netflix, your computer jumps across several nodes. At some point, your connection is suffering. It could be saturated backbone links, dropped packets, or it might be Netflix throttling you.
  • When you connect to a VPN (but before you reconnect to Netflix), your computer also jumps across several nodes. Depending on the location of that VPN, it could jump across completely different nodes that it would take if it was just connecting to Netflix. In another contrived example, if the highway is closed down, and my VPN takes me on a secret side route to get me to my location faster, it wasn’t because the Highway Patrol decided they wanted me to get home slower, it’s just that the route I normally took was congested that day.
  • It becomes even more complicated when you realize that depending on the location of the VPN, we access different “Netflix’s”. What I mean by that is — imagine if, in order to eat a McDonald’s hamburger, you needed to go all the way to Chicago. Seems dumb, right? Well that’s because we know McDonald’s can be found all around the world! The same is true with content — if I’m in England and Netflix is in San Francisco, streaming content all the way from San Francisco would probably be quite laggy. So their content is mirrored in a bunch of different locations so that whatever mirror that’s available and closest is used.
  • That means that when I connect to a VPN, not only may I be taking a separate route than my normal congested path, but I might be going to a different “mirror” of the content if you will because what is closest to my VPN might be completely different than what is closest to me locally!

Here’s the bottom line — we all love to support articles or posts that reinforce many of our core beliefs. But no matter how much we want it to be true, let’s still think critically and come to our own conclusions –and perhaps not immediately believe someone sitting at home on their internet without any networking background definitively saying they “proved” Netflix was being throttled.

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