Netflix is facing a phantom backlashSeptember 7, 2011: 2:46 PM ET
The speed with which a -- false -- rumor about one nefarious practice at Netflix spread does not bode well for the online video giant.
FORTUNE -- It's an odd feeling to scan the morning headlines and find that several of them are about something bad that a company has not done. All the headlines this morning (West Coast time) indicated that Netflix (NFLX) is not preventing customers from streaming video to more than one device at a time. That some people had trouble with simultaneous streams over the weekend was just a glitch -- not policy.
But before the rumor was quashed, the default assumption had been that Netflix must be doing Evil, an assumption that might not have gained traction before the company's decision in July to change its pricing plans. That drew loud complaints from some customers who seemed to feel they had a right to dirt-cheap movie rentals for life.
The rumor apparently started with a report by Stop the Cap! which, exclamation point and all, is dedicated to "promoting better broadband, fighting data caps, usage-based billing, & other Internet overcharging schemes." The site declared flatly that Netflix was imposing "strict new limits on the number of concurrent video streams available for viewing." Later, the post was updated with Netflix's denial.
That an advocacy site jumped the gun is no surprise, but the fact that the rumor spread so quickly on Twitter and elsewhere and was picked up (and noted as false) by so many news outlets shows that a lot of people are waiting for any excuse to pounce on Netflix.
Meanwhile, investors have been battering Netflix's stock, which is down about 28% since the pricing changes were announced. (In short: customers who want both DVD and streaming video have to pay more than they had been paying, while those who choose one or the other still pay tiny monthly fees for unlimited viewing.)
Both consumers and investors should get used to the idea that prices might rise and access to videos might fall as Netflix's agreements with producers come to an end. A harbinger of things to come occurred last week, when Netflix failed to reach an agreement with Starz, the premium cable channel. Although Netflix's offer was 10 times what it had been paying, that wasn't enough for Starz.
Add to that the possibility that Internet service providers will start charging based on the amount of bandwidth used -- which would increase the cost of sending video streams -- and the likelihood increases that the vast price difference between cable TV and online movie rentals will become a lot less, well, vast.