YouTube Joins Netflix in Move to Reduce Video Quality in Europe During Coronavirus Crisis

YouTube will limit streaming in European countries to standard-definition video by default, following a similar move by Netflix to curtail bandwidth usage across the continent amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“[W]e are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default,” YouTube said in a statement. “While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity.”

The decision comes after a European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton reached out to video-streaming providers and lobbied them to throttle back their streaming so internet networks would not become overloaded as millions of people are stuck at home. According to Google, Breton met this week with Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki on the issue.

“We will continue working with [EU] member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience,” YouTube said in the statement.

It’s not clear whether YouTube users will be able to override the default SD playback setting and watch videos in HD if they choose. Variety has reached out to YouTube for clarification. YouTube’s decision to degrade video quality in Europe was first reported by Reuters.

Netflix has long been the No. 1 app in terms of consuming downstream bandwidth on broadband networks. But in recent days, YouTube has eclipsed Netflix in the rankings, sometimes by as much as twice the volume of internet traffic, according to network equipment vendor Sandvine’s preliminary findings. Sandvine tracks bandwidth consumption trends using data from internet service provider customers worldwide (excluding China and India).

In a statement, Breton said, “Millions of Europeans are adapting to social distancing measures thanks to digital platforms, helping them to telework, e-learn and entertain themselves. I warmly welcome the initiative that Google has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the internet during the COVID-19 crisis by having YouTube switch all EU traffic to standard definition by default. I appreciate the strong responsibility that Mr. Pichai and Mrs. Wojcicki have demonstrated.”

On Thursday, Netflix said it would temporarily cut video bit rates for the next 30 days in Europe, estimating that it will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25%.

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