Netflix is a Data Hog

And other myths about Net Neutrality

David Weinberger
Published in
5 min readNov 12, 2014


“…data hogs like Netflix might need to bear some of the cost of handling heavy traffic.” — ABCnews

That’s like saying your water utility is a water hog because you take long showers and over-water your lawn.

Streaming a high-def movie does take a whole bunch of bits. But if you hadn’t gone ahead and clicked on Taken 2 [SPOILER: she’s taken again], Netflix would not have sent those bits over the Internet.

So Netflix isn’t a data hog. You are.

You’re a data hog.

No, you’re not.

Some people use the Internet ten minutes a day to check their email. Some people leave their computers on 24/7 to download entire video libraries. None of them is a data hog.

How can I say this so unequivocally? Because nobody gets a drop more data than what they pay for. The ISPs make damn sure of that. If you pay for, say, a 10 megabit per second connection, you are not getting any more than 10 megabits of data per second even if you have Bittorrent set to “Stun” all day every day.

The ISPs may not like that you are using all of the Internet you are paying them for. Well, boohoo.

The Internet is a new broadcast medium.

The ISPs think like cable companies (what a surprise!). They’d like for us to think that way, too.

From the cable company mindset, there are broadcasters, content and consumers. In this view, the sites that send us data are broadcasters because they supply us with content. We consumers are on the Net to get content.

The only thing wrong with this model is everything.

First, the real broadcast model is a one-to-many relationship. The Internet is a many-to-many network.

Second, broadcasters cast broadly. Your favorite local radio station sends its signal out over the tristate region whether or not anyone is tuned in. That’s broadcasting. But if the station also enables you to listen over the Web, it only sends you its signal — its bits — if you click on the link asking for them (see point #1 above).

Third, while obviously you can get as much one-to-many content as you want on the Net — your Internet experience can consist of nothing but Netflix movies and Hulu programs — Internet content is different from the old broadcast content even when that content is exactly the same.

Wait, what, a paradox?! Nah…

Even when Internet content is bit-for-bit the same as what you get over broadcast TV or radio, it’s different:

  • Anyone can create it and make it available worldwide, changing the power dynamics of broadcast.
  • Anyone can link to it, creating a very different distribution mechanism from the old air-burst model.
  • Anyone can comment on it, changing the way our culture absorbs it.
  • The path of absorption is now far more visible, changing our self-understanding of our culture.

And that’s just the most obvious stuff.

Fourth, that means that the ISP’s model of broadcast, content, and consumers is thoroughly wrong. It’s not a broadcast medium, we are not mere consumers, and when content includes stuff that we make and that we partake in socially, calling it content is highly misleading.

But it’s not misleading if you’re a cable company. You make your big money selling content. That’s why you want to prioritize some content over others. It’s one important reason you give your subscribers ten times more capacity for downloading than for uploading.

If you’re a cable company, it’s all about content. That is the original sin of the way we get access to the Internet in this country.

The Internet is the set of cables and wires that connect us.

The Internet is an inter-networking agreement. That agreement — a set of rules or protocols — defines how networks will pass information from one to another. If your network doesn’t abide by those rules, your network is not part of the Internet. One of those rules is that participating networks will pass along packets of data without regard for who sent them, where they’re going, what’s in them, or what application they’re supporting.

The Internet’s rules apply whether your network uses copper wire, optical fiber, radio waves, or carrier pigeons. The Internet is logically independent of any of its instantiations.

The major ISPs typically provide some physical infrastructure — usually via right of ways on public land, granted by local governments — that connects your house or office to some other, more capacious piece of physical infrastructure. But they do not own the Internet.

The Internet cannot be owned any more than the alphabet, good grammar, or politeness can be owned. And anyone who pretends otherwise is being a bully.

So, if the Internet can’t be owned, why is Net Neutrality even an issue? Because the companies that transmit bits to and from us would like to rewrite the rules of the Internet in their own interests…interests that do not always align with ours. For example, it’s cheaper for them to throttle our access (while continuing to charge us more than much of the rest of the developed world) than increase the amount of bandwidth they provide.

Net Neutrality is about regulating the Internet.

No no no no no. It’s about preserving the Internet by regulating the oligarchies that provide us with access to the Internet.

“Net Neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet.”

It is a myth that this statement by Senator Ted Cruz has any meaning whatsoever.

Cover image: Alvesgaspar CC-BY-SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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David Weinberger

I mainly write about the effect of tech on our ideas