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Verizon Communications' war of words with Netflix escalated Thursday, as what began with a tweet is now pulling in the lawyers.

The telecom giant sent a cease-and-desist letter to Netflix, demanding that the popular streaming service stop sending messages to customers saying Verizon's crowded network is to blame for slow download speeds.

"There is no basis to assert that issues with respect to playback of any particular video session are attributable solely to the Verizon network," wrote Verizon general counsel Randal Milch to Netflix's chief lawyer, David Hyman. "Verizon demands that Netflix immediately cease and desist from providing any such further 'notices' to users of the Verizon network."

Verizon also demanded that Netflix submit evidence documenting its claim within five days. "Failure to provide this information may lead us to pursue legal remedies," Milch wrote.

Responding to the letter, Joris Evers, a Netflix spokesman, tweeted Thursday: "This is about people not getting what they paid for from their Internet service providers. Netflix is transparent, (Verizon) is shutting that down."

Netflix declined to comment further.

The kerfuffle began with a tweet Tuesday evening from a Netflix customer, Yuri Victor. The user-experience designer had tried to stream a movie when Netflix flashed a message on the buffering screen: "The Verizon network is crowded right now. Adjusting video for smoother playback."

Victor tweeted the screen image to his followers, and Netflix soon confirmed that it had sent the message. "We are testing ways to let consumers know how their Netflix experience is being affected by congestion on their broadband provider's network," Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland said via e-mail. "At present, we are testing in the U.S. in areas serviced by many broadband providers."

Verizon called the message "a PR stunt" by Netflix. But with social-media chatter seemingly tilting in Netflix's favor, Verizon issued a more specific response with the letter, arguing that "there are many different factors that can affect traffic on the Internet, including choices by Netflix in how to connect to its customers and deliver content to them."

The connections between multiple networks, in-home wiring, Wi-Fi and device settings may also contribute to slowing speeds, Milch wrote.

The dust-up comes as a surprise, since the two companies signed a deal about a month ago to improve their customers' experience in watching Netflix movies.

The deal, similar to the one Netflix signed with Comcast, which caused furor among network neutrality proponents, would have Netflix pay to connect directly to Verizon's network.

Verizon says the agreement will go forward, and it's installing equipment in 13 cities, with a small group trial taking place now in Dallas. Verizon plans to complete the work this year.

"Netflix relies on a panoply of content-distribution and other middle-man networks to reach its customers, trying to lower its costs as much as possible," Milch wrote. "The cost/quality trade-off is one Netflix has chosen."

Internet service providers say their financial arrangements with content providers and other third-party content distributors are routine and have been around for years. But net neutrality proponents have criticized such deals, arguing that they embolden ISPs to increasingly force popular video and audio content providers to pay to ensure a smoother traffic flow.

Netflix conceded that it had entered the agreement with Comcast reluctantly, but it hadn't criticized Verizon publicly until now.

"Netflix's false accusations have the potential to harm the Verizon brand in the marketplace," Milch wrote. "I sincerely hope this is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of how Netflix treats its network partners and our mutual customers."

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