Net neutrality is worth preserving--for mHealth's sake

If you are like most Americans, you see the Internet as an electronic arena of free speech. It's the reason the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2010 put in place enforceable, high-level rules preventing broadband providers from discriminating against online content and blocking content altogether. However, in a major blow to the freedom and openness of the Internet, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week struck down the FCC's "net neutrality" policy requiring Internet service providers to treat all traffic across their networks the same.

The FCC's 2010 "Open Internet" order had stated that broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services. Under the FCC rules, providers were prohibited from blocking lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices that compete with their voice or video telephony services. In addition, broadband providers were not to unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic. But, now all bets are off. 

Case in point: In 2012, AT&T restricted the use of Apple's FaceTime app to certain pricing plans. Critics denounced AT&T's decision at the time, asserting that the company violated the FCC's Open Internet order and blocked an app competing with its own voice or video telephony services. According to a case study from an FCC working group, AT&T's decision to restrict the use of Apple's FaceTime video-calling application over its cellular data network "sets a precedent that could have very negative consequences for the vibrant market for mobile applications." 

Members of the FCC's Open Internet Advisory Committee Mobile Broadband Working Group agreed that blocking apps runs the risk of discouraging innovation that benefits all consumers. Mobile broadband networks, in particular, have provided a gateway to innovative bandwidth-intensive apps such as videoconferencing. And, there's no doubt that sound Internet policy requires the promotion of greater competition.

Towards that end, I asked the FCC for its view of how the court overturning net neutrality might impact the telehealth and mHealth industry to which an agency spokesman replied that they were "still reviewing the decision and can't really speculate at this time." Nevertheless, in response to the court's ruling, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn argued that the agency "should preserve consumer access to content of their choice, and our policies should advance competition, investment and innovation." 

Similarly, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a general statement that the agency is "not going to abandon its responsibility to oversee that broadband networks operate in the public interest." Wheeler said that neither is the FCC going to "disregard the possibility that exercises of economic power or of ideological preference by dominant network firms will diminish the value of the Internet to some or all segments of our society."

Last year, in an interview, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT's Doug Fridsma said ONC has taken inspiration from the Internet. "What we're trying to do is the equivalent of what you've got in the Internet, which is horizontal integration rather than vertical integration," said Fridsma, who warned against adopting the AOL model. "Remember AOL?," he asked. "It was the easy way to get on the Internet but you could have everything but the Internet. Because it was interfaced and canned, a closed garden."

Now that the FCC has lost its court battle against a legal challenge from Verizon, Congress must take up the fight over net neutrality and introduce legislation clarifying the commission's authority to ensure a free and open Internet, while preventing the use of Internet fast lanes and other discriminatory rules. Consumer protection should be one of the basic principles of telecommunications policy and regulation. In particular, this means preserving basic rules to ensure the freedom and openness of the Internet. - Greg (@Slabodkin)