Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings came out in favor of stronger net neutrality standards on Thursday. But is he protecting customers or, like Frank Underwood, does he have ulterior motives to protect the bottom line? 

Ever since a U.S. circuit court struck down the FCC's enforcement of its net neutrality-friendly Open Internet rules for telecoms, the debate over how to proceed has split tech companies, advocacy groups, and people on any number of sides. Now we know what Netflix thinks.

Slow Streaming

We previously pondered if the broadly reported complaints about slow Netflix streaming, around the time House of Cards was released, was due to the death of net neutrality.

We ultimately came to the conclusion that the haggling over bandwidth between Netflix and companies like Verizon and Comcast that caused the slow-down would not have been any different if the FCC was still enforcing its 2010 Open Internet rules.

In any case, streaming speeds soon got better for at least Comcast subscribers after Netflix agreed to pay for direct access to Comcast's network, but now one thing is clear: Netflix thinks net neutrality should be strengthened so that never happens again.

Echoing the conclusion we came to, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated in Netflix's blog on Thursday that "the traditional form of net neutrality which was recently overturned by a Verizon lawsuit is important, but insufficient." Hastings went on to call the FCC's 2010 rules "weak net neutrality" that "isn't enough to protect and open, competitive internet." It at least wouldn't have been enough to stop Comcast from charging Netflix for better access to its network.

Hastings now thinks, "a stronger form of net neutrality is required." Stronger than the new, weakened, nearly-voluntary Open Internet rules that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler outlined after the agency's defeat in court:

"Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers," said Netflix. "Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge," stated the streaming company's CEO, who found himself paying such a charge recently.

Hastings went on to tell Netflix's tale of streaming woe:

"Some major ISPs, like Cablevision, already practice strong net neutrality and for their broadband subscribers, the quality of Netflix and other streaming services is outstanding. But on other big ISPs, due to a lack of sufficient interconnectivity, Netflix performance has been constrained, subjecting consumers who pay a lot of money for high-speed Internet to high buffering rates, long wait times and poor video quality.

"Once Netflix agrees to pay the ISP interconnection fees, however, sufficient capacity is made available and high quality service for consumers is restored. If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future. Roughly the same arbitrary tax is demanded from the intermediaries such as Cogent and Level 3, who supply millions of websites with connectivity, leading to a poor consumer experience."

Broadening the Debate, Or Acting in Self-Interest?

With all of the talk about the FCC's 2010 version of net neutrality, which protects the "last mile" connection that comes into consumers' homes, little attention has been called to ISPs' power over content providers trying to access the rest of their networks, higher up the pipeline, so to speak. Hastings seems to be trying to make the connection that charging content providers before the last mile hurts consumers nonetheless, a connection that's tenuous. 

Hasting's call for net neutrality rules that are stronger than ever comes at a time when Comcast is trying to acquire Time Warner Cable, the result of which would effectively give Comcast a monopoly over nearly a third of the U.S. cable market. Netflix staking a position on net neutrality, and Hasting's in-depth blog post, is definitely aimed at the cable mega-giant, if not by name.

"Some big ISPs are extracting a toll because they can -- they effectively control access to millions of consumers and are willing to sacrifice the interests of their own customers to press Netflix and others to pay," said Hastings. "Though they have the scale and power to do this, they should realize it is in their long term interest to back strong net neutrality. While in the short term Netflix will in cases reluctantly pay large ISPs to ensure a high quality member experience, we will continue to fight for the Internet the world needs and deserves."

Meanwhile, according to GigaOm, Comcast reacted to Hasting's open letter by saying that what happens higher up the pipeline has never been the concern of net neutrality:

"The Open Internet rules never were designed to deal with peering and Internet interconnection, which have been an essential part of the growth of the Internet for two decades. Providers like Netflix have always paid for their interconnection to the Internet and have always had ample options to ensure that their customers receive an optimal performance through all ISPs at a fair price," said David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation, in a statement.

"We are happy that Comcast and Netflix were able to reach an amicable, market-based solution to our interconnection issues and believe that our agreement demonstrates the effectiveness of the market as a mechanism to deal with these matters."

Cohen has a point, in that the FCC's Open Internet rules were never meant to ensure bandwidth-consuming content companies wouldn't have to make deals with the intermediary networks they run on, but instead were focused on restricting telecoms from having any kind of discriminatory control over content on the consumer end.

And one might argue that Netflix was forced to pay for better access not in spite of its size, but because of it: Netflix streaming, as we reported late last year, sometimes makes up over 31 percent of all peak downstream traffic in North America, after all.

For consumers, the fight over net neutrality and consumer choice is still yet to come, and while Netflix's entry into the conversation is clearly at least partially out of self-interest, it'll make the debate much more complicated -- and interesting.