YouTube Caught in Net Neutrality Flap in India

Google (S GOOG) has long been a proponent of net neutrality, but it appears the company may have unknowingly allowed an advertising partner in India to promote preferential treatment for certain video streams on YouTube. A reader in India tipped us off that YouTube advertiser Bharti Airtel, a major ISP in India, was promising its subscribers faster Internet access when they tuned in to YouTube’s Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket coverage.

The Indian ISP recently ran an ad on YouTube saying its subscribers would get preferred access to live cricket matches streamed from the YouTube IPL site. “TV QUALITY VIDEO WITHOUT BUFFERING,” the advertisement promised. “Airtel Broadband gifts all its customers 2Mbps SPEED UPGRADE for” Here’s a screenshot of the offering provided by our India-based reader:

The offer is only open to Airtel Boadband subscribers, and only extends to IPL videos. For other pieces of content, subscribers would suffer through their usual broadband plan speeds, which are typically lower than 2Mbps. In that way, the offer is kind of like Comcast (s CMCSA) promising guaranteed video quality or better broadband speeds for video streams from (s GE), a practice that would most likely be criticized by competing broadcasters ABC (s DIS), CBS (s CBS) and Fox (s NWS) — and possibly even by Google itself.

YouTube’s coverage of the Indian Premier League marks its first live sports deal, which gives it exclusive rights to live streams of the cricket matches worldwide (except in the U.S.).

Google has been very vocal about net neutrality in the U.S., where it has argued that all Internet content should be treated equally. In a filing sent to the FCC after the commission sought comment on net neutrality proposals, Google asked that it establish a non-discrimination policy to “prevent a broadband provider from using its control over the network to favor or disadvantage particular sources of content or applications” — which is exactly what Airtel is doing with IPL streams.

A source close to the situation says that Google didn’t see the ad before it appeared on the YouTube IPL site, but once it did, the company objected to it and asked Bharti Airtel to revise it. The ad has since disappeared from YouTube, according to our reader, but Airtel is still promoting the offer on its own web site. Even so, in the weeks since the ad first appeared, Google has benefited not only from revenues associated with it, but also from Bharti subscribers that have taken advantage of increased broadband speeds when viewing cricket matches.

Google has disavowed any association with Bharti’s preferential treatment of YouTube streams, issuing the following statement on the matter:

“We do not have any commercial arrangement with Airtel for preferential access to YouTube or to the IPL’s channel. We did not ask for nor did we approve of giving YouTube any preferential treatment. This is independent of their sponsorship arrangement with us and is not a component of it.”

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