Monday, March 2, 2015

Net Neutrality & Meaningful Use

Is the Internet a public utility? Do providers have a responsibility to treat their customers' content equally? Should healthcare Internet traffic have priority over other Internet traffic?

According to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a February 26, 2015, press release (PDF):

Today, the Commission—once and for all—enacts strong, sustainable rules, grounded in multiple sources of legal authority, to ensure that Americans reap the economic, social, and civic benefits of an Open Internet today and into the future. These new rules are guided by three principles: America’s broadband networks must be fast, fair and open—principles shared by the overwhelming majority of the nearly 4 million commenters who participated in the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding.

In this announcement, access to the Internet takes precedence over economic incentives to sell better service to higher bidders. It reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service -- in other words, as a regulated public utility.

Healthcare was a consideration in the decision:

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in her statement of support for the net neutrality, mentioned healthcare among a litany of reasons for her vote. "Keeping in touch with your loved ones overseas; interacting with your healthcare provider, even if you are miles away from the closest medical facility ... We are here to ensure that there is only one Internet where all applications, new products, ideas and points of view have an equal chance of being seen and heard," she said.

The net neutrality argument has been raging for years, in fact, ever since term was coined in 2003. As decisive as the press release makes the decision sound, the argument is unlikely to stop now.

Is net neutrality an absolute? Maybe for the moment, but there's a good chance that won't last, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Les Lenert, chief research officer for the Medical University of South Carolina, told FierceHealthIT:

Net neutrality is not something I favor totally... The Internet is a public utility--one with increasing medical applications. Bandwidth for the public good should have priority over bandwidth for amusement... Network neutrality may still include concepts of prioritizing certain types of information though regulation. If so, health information deserves access to the fast lane. However, the FCC should ensure a neutral approach based on categories of service rather than vendors prioritizing their own applications.

When Meaningful Use Stage 3 is accomplished, the Internet will become a critical piece of healthcare infrastructure in the US, if it isn't already, and net neutrality arguments will need to be somewhat more nuanced. Some might argue that healthcare information should not take priority over their inalienable right to view cute cat videos, but that is unlikely to be the FCC's position in the long term.

All information is equal, but some information is more equal than other, to paraphrase Orwell's Animal Farm.

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