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YouTube goes SD streaming by default in Europe due to COVID-19

Natasha Lomas

YouTube has switched to standard definition streaming by default in Europe.

We asked the company if it planned to do this yesterday, and today a spokeswoman confirmed the step. The move was reported earlier by Reuters.

It's a temporary measure in response to calls by the European Commission for streaming platforms to help ease demand on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis.

Users can still manually adjust video quality but defaults remain a powerful tool to influence overall outcomes.

A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the switch, sending us this statement:

People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times. While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity. We are in ongoing conversations with the regulators (including Ofcom), governments and network operators all over Europe, and are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the UK and the EU to Standard Definition. We will continue our work to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.

Yesterday Netflix announced it would default to SD streaming in the region for 30 days for the same reason.

In recent days, the EU's internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has held discussions with platform executives to urge them to help reduce the load on Internet infrastructure as scores of Europeans are encouraged or required to stay at home as part of quarantine measures.

The Commission is concerned about the impact on online education and remote work if there's a major spike in demand for digital entertainment services -- and is pushing for collective action from platforms and users to manage increased load on Internet infrastructure.

Breton met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to press the case for lowering the quality of video streams during the coronavirus crisis.

Today he welcomed YouTube's move. "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 COVID19 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. We will closely follow the evolution of the situation together," said Breton in a statement. 

Google's spokeswoman told us it hasn't seen much change in regional traffic peaks so far but said there have been changes in usage patterns from more people being at home -- with usage expanding across additional hours and some lower usage peaks. (The company routinely makes traffic data available in the Google Traffic and Disruptions Transparency Report.)

YouTube, along with other major social platforms, has faced scrutiny over the risks of their tools being used to spread coronavirus-related misinformation.

Although, in the case of Google, the company appears to have taken a proactive stance in suppressing bogus content and surfacing authoritative sources of health information. YouTube's spokeswoman noted the homepage directs users to the World Health Organization for info on COVID-19 or other locally relevant authoritative organizations, for instance.

She also noted the company is donating ad inventory to governments and NGOs to use for education and information -- pointing to a blog post earlier this month in which Pichai discussed some of the measures it's taking to shield users from misinformation that could be harmful to public health.

YouTube will be rolling out a campaign rolling across Europe that encourages people to follow health authorities’ guidance and stay home, she added.

Google's response to the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be a far swifter and more aggressive to the threat posed to public health than its approach to other types of content that can also be harmful to people's health -- such as anti-vaccination content, which YouTube only moved to demonetize last year.