Comcast May Be Infringing Net Neutrality With Shady HBO Go Deals
HBO Go is on Playstation 4 streaming—except for Comcast users.
Image: Mr Tin DC/Flickr
HBO Go just made its way to Playstation 4—except Comcast subscribers can't get it. Customers have been complaining that they can't watch HBO on their PS4, even though they pay for it—and there's been no explanation from Comcast.
It appears, however, that Comcast blocking HBO Go on certain devices is a violation of the new net neutrality rules, experts say.
This sort of blocking isn't new. For Comcast subscribers, HBO doesn't work on Playstation 3 and it also doesn't work on the Amazon Fire streaming box. It didn't work on Roku, an internet-connected streaming box, until December, after Roku filed a complaint with the FCC about it. For customers who use other service providers, such as Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and AT&T, HBO Go works fine on Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Roku, and every other streaming device.
Months of complaining on the Comcast forums by customers only warranted a response last month from a Comcast employee, who said that HBO Go streaming availability falls into the category of "business decisions and deal with business terms that have not yet been agreed to between the parties."
Comcast's response makes it hard to pin this on anyone in particular, unless you ask them. And HBO told me it has nothing to do with it. I asked HBO why it's not streaming on Playstation right now:
"Those are questions for Comcast," a spokesperson for the company said. "It is their decision."
Last week, the FCC approved new rules for the internet that prevent service providers, like Comcast, from blocking, slowing down, or charging extra for certain types of information. If Comcast is indeed shaking down Sony or HBO for more money in order to unblock HBO Go on new devices, then it's probably a net neutrality violation under the new rules.
"If, say, the box works, and you have no problem streaming other content, but somehow the HBO Go application doesn't work, absent an additional payment—either from HBO or the customer, then, yeah, it should be covered by net neutrality rules and be treated as straight up blocking and discrimination," Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, one of the groups that pushed most strongly for net neutrality rules, told me.
That's most likely what is going on here, Wood said, and HBO confirmed. It doesn't really make business sense for HBO to be preventing Comcast from pushing out its content to subscribers, in whatever form.
"It is HBO's ongoing goal to provide our acclaimed programming to subscribers whenever and wherever they want it," the company added. "The launch of HBO GO on PS4 continues to accomplish that and we are hopeful that all of our distributors will ultimately choose to support the service on the PS4 platform."
But we still don't really know the specifics. Is Comcast asking for money from HBO? From Sony? From both? Roku, in a filing to the FCC, noted that authentication agreements that allow their technology to work with specific service providers are shady and bad for consumers.
"While an ISP can throttle content delivery speeds to effect anti-competitive discrimination, throttling is only the most transparent of a long list of discriminatory actions than an ISP with market power can undertake," the company wrote. "[Others] include control over data caps and authentication to hinder content and platforms that directly compete with the ISP's own or affiliated content."
The FCC, as part of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, is probing whether Comcast has been shaking down content providers or favoring its own streaming services, which may shed light on how often this is happening.
Comcast, as part of a deal to offer an "internet plus" cable package that includes HBO, has a whole suite of on demand HBO shows, and it wants you to watch them through a Comcast cable box.
"Xfinity customers who subscribe to HBO do have access to the full HBO library via their set to box, or via Xfinity TV Go platforms across devices. We also currently authenticate more than 90 networks across 18 devices," Comcast told me. "There is no shortage in the number of ways for our customers to access their content across the devices and platforms of their choice."
Unless, of course, your choice is to watch HBO that you pay for on a Playstation, with a Comcast connection. That's exactly the kind of decision that net neutrality rules were designed to prevent.
"Comcast can make a superficial statements like, 'if they can get it through our system, who cares?' Well, it's the kind of decision we don't want Comcast making for consumers," Wood said. "Is it exactly the same thing? Or are they making a business decision that cripples someone else's technology?"