After a few months of wishy-washy statements on net neutrality indicating that the company had largely given up on it, Netflix is changing course. In a tweet today, the company wrote: “Netflix will never outgrow the fight for #NetNeutrality. Everyone deserves an open Internet.” It also linked to the Battle for the Net campaign, indicating that Netflix had signed on to take action.
This is a big change of direction for Netflix. Though the company was one of the most staunch net neutrality advocates back in 2014 — during the last fight over net neutrality — it hasn’t cared quite as much this time around. In March, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Verge that he’s “not too worried” about what’ll become of net neutrality because it didn’t pose a big risk to his company. And just a couple weeks ago, Hastings told Recode that net neutrality is “not our primary battle at this point.”
Hastings was pretty straightforward about why that was the case: “It’s not narrowly important to us because we’re big enough to get the deals we want,” he said.
That makes today’s statement a notable course correction. Netflix is acknowledging that, although it’s a huge company, it’s still going to put up a fight.
In an email to The Verge, a spokesperson for Netflix said our characterization of today’s action as a “big change” was “a bit hyperbolic” and that its position had been more nuanced. Hastings told Recode, for instance, that that the company would be willing to support lobbying efforts, which the Battle for the Net protest certainly falls under.
“It's true the weakening of US net neutrality laws will unlikely materially impact Netflix's business or service, but we wouldn't be where we are today without an open internet,” the spokesperson wrote. “There are other companies for whom this is a bigger issue, and we support strong net neutrality protections to ensure the next Netflix has a fair shot to go the distance.”
Netflix is arguably one of the biggest success stories that came from having an open internet. Internet providers easily could have made growth much harder for Netflix when it was starting out. At the time, Netflix would have been too small to cut deals that put it on equal footing with a company like HBO or YouTube, which had Google at its back. But because all US internet subscribers had unencumbered access to Netflix, it didn’t have to worry about that, and it exploded into the streaming giant it is today.
Netflix hasn’t said yet what it’ll do in protest
Losing net neutrality — which may well happen later this year — would have potentially provided Netflix with a benefit at this point. Netflix is now the company worried about small competitors, and letting net neutrality die would have made life harder for upstarts. Netflix has always been a bit opportunistic about net neutrality, and it isn’t hard to draw a connection between its growing subscriber count and its dwindling support for open internet policies.
Given Hastings’ many ambivalent statements about net neutrality throughout the year, this tweet isn’t something we should necessarily take as a forceful call to action. But we’ll get a better sense for how Netflix is taking the fight next month. It’s now signed on to participate in the Battle for the Net protest, which will have dozens of web companies protesting in support of net neutrality on July 12th.
It’s not clear what any of these companies will do just yet. Last time around, during a 2014 protest organized by the same group, websites including Kickstarter, Tumblr, and Reddit filled their sites with spinning wheels indicating that they were taking forever to load — a statement against the internet fast and slow lanes that losing net neutrality might create. Netflix included a banner on the side of its page, reading “Protect internet freedom. Defend net neutrality. Take action.”
Just over 90 groups have signed on for this year’s protest, including Amazon, Vimeo, Mozilla, Imgur, and Pornhub.
Update June 15th, 3:35PM ET: This story has been updated to include comment from Netflix.