When videos blur, buffer, or won’t play altogether, YouTube is now pinning the blame on your internet service provider.
“Experiencing interruptions?” reads the message in a blue bar underneath choppy video, as seen in the above screenshot. Clicking “find out why” brings you to Google’s new website, where it displays video playback quality for internet service providers (ISPs) in various countries. It’s like a report card for your delinquent ISP.
Google, which owns YouTube, has a strong interest in deflecting blame for poor video quality. The US government is considering new “net neutrality” regulations that could affect how information, particularly data-heavy streaming video, flows through the internet. ISPs would like to see more of the responsibility placed on video services like YouTube and Netflix, which account for a growing portion of internet traffic.
YouTube’s new notification is similar to one Netflix recently displayed to customers. “The Verizon network is crowded right now,” it said, for instance, when video playback was slow. Verizon called the message “deliberately misleading” and threatened legal action. Netflix defended its finger-pointing but stopped doing it last month.
The YouTube notification is more subtle, but the intent is the same. In Google’s view, ISPs are responsible for maintaining the capacity to deliver high-quality video streams. Internet providers argue that crowded networks are inevitable, and video services should find less congested routes for their data, including direct connections that ISPs charge money to set up. Video companies have derided those “fast lanes” even as they sometimes pay for them to improve quality of service.
Curiously, though, Google and other technology companies have been relatively quiet as the US Federal Communications Commission moves closer to rules that would explicitly allow those fast lanes. That’s a stark contrast to four years ago, when Google played a central—and controversial—role in drafting net neutrality regulations.
Rather than intensely lobbying the government this time around, Google and Netflix seem to be focused on a public relations campaign. Both now regularly report how well their services work on a wide range of internet providers. Netflix’s ISP Index covers 20 countries; Google’s Video Quality Report is available in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Google has also started labeling some ISPs as “YouTube HD Verified,” a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal for streaming video.
The message of these reports is clearly that ISPs are responsible for whether your video playback is smooth. “You may be prompted to view the report if you’re experiencing poor playback on your computer (such as frequent rebuffering or fuzzy video),” Google explains on a new page in YouTube’s help section.
It’s not clear exactly when Google started displaying the ISP-blaming notification bar. Google’s press office is closed for Independence Day weekend and didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Update (July 7): YouTube says it began displaying the blue notification bar to users in the US on May 29, when it also unveiled the American version of its Video Quality Report.