Roku, YouTube and the myth of streaming neutrality

Something has been bothering me since Roku and Google started fighting earlier this year.

In its ongoing transportation dispute, Roku has accused Google of being a bully by requiring YouTube to enjoy special search and voice control privileges on the Roku platform. These lawsuits, Roku says, jeopardize the “fair and open” market it has tried to establish, and it seems willing to lose YouTube to protect its broader goals. (Google, in turn, has threatened to remove YouTube from the Roku platform on December 9 for anyone who has not yet downloaded the app.)

I don’t want to mess with Roku or downplay Google’s unchecked market power, but I disagree with the idea that any streaming platform is fair, open, or neutral. All the major players in the streaming wars are known to go all out, including Roku, and special treatment is more common than the company suggests.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Roku powers Roku content

Open the Roku mobile app and you’ll see The Roku Channel gets a more prominent promotion than anything else. A large row of “Featured on Roku Channel” sits near the top of the home screen, with handy “Play Now” and “Add to Saved List” buttons. Keep scrolling and you’ll find equally great promotions for Roku’s live channels. Rather, see what is available in other Services require exploring multiple menu layers.

rokuappcontent Jared Newman / IDG

On the Roku mobile app, content on The Roku Channel enjoys promotional benefits not available for other streaming services.

Similarly, the “Free Featured” section of the Roku home screen weighs heavily in promoting Roku content. As of this writing on a Roku Streaming Stick 4K, the top row “Featured” in that section includes 26 selections from The Roku Channel, versus four from other apps. Meanwhile, the “Live TV” section of the menu only includes linear streams from The Roku Channel, without any from competing apps like Pluto TV or Plex.

Of course, Roku has every right to steer users to content that helps drive their targeted advertising businessBut it comes at the expense of a more neutral system that could better connect users to what they really want to watch.

Special treatment is not unusual

Roku’s complaints against Google largely revolve around special search and voice control treatment. Roku notes that Google has searched a specific YouTube row in search results, for example, and that you want voice searches from within the YouTube app to only include results from YouTube.

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