Last month, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to adopt new rules regarding net neutrality. These rules call for greater transparency, prohibit blocking and ban “unreasonable discrimination” on wireless and fixed networks. However, there are differences set aside for wireless networks that have additional implications for people to access information—consequences that impact the ability of individuals to access health care information over the Web.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at each of the new rules. As to transparency, the FCC now requires that all broadband providers be more transparent about their services and performance. That includes being clearer on how they operate their networks, how optimal their service is (i.e. slow or fast) and offering more detail on their pricing models. This is pretty straight-forward and now offers consumers an opportunity to file a compliant with the FCC if their provider is found wanting.
On to blocking. FCC rules now bar an Internet Service Provider from blocking select applications or services on the basis of improving network performance. So while there are ultra-active users out there sucking up a lot of bandwidth, the FCC has restrained ISPs from banning system hogs. This also places a ban on ISPs from charging content providers (e.g. Hulu for streaming movies) that are increasing network traffic. There is also no blocking of legal content or services that compete with the service providers’ own properties. However, there is an exception for mobile broadband application stores, so blocking is acceptable here. The basis for the exception is lost on me, as this is content that should similarly be protected.
In fact, given that many people who are on the lower economic ladder rely on mobile technology alone to access the Web, this new ruling disadvantages them. It should be added that FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn recognized this fact, but his ideas on extending the ban on blocking content on mobile phones did not win out. To be precise, according to the Pew Internet Research Center, 36% of Americans have limited access to the Internet and 13% have no broadband at home or at work. Furthermore, the Pew Research Institute determined that overall, the typical profile of a person without broadband is older (0ver age 63), has a low-income (less than $40,000/yr) and is not as educated as the general population (without a high school diploma or only a high school education). For less financially able persons, this ruling confers a second-class status when it comes to accessing content online. Given the focus of this blog with all things social media and health care, there is a concern I raise here about the ability of people to fairly access information on the Web, including health care information, in a manner that is comparable to fixed service recipients. This divide also impacts rural residents who are often without adequate access to broadband services to begin with.
This ruling is troublesome, but it is further worsened by the FCC’s ruling on banning “unreasonable discrimination.” The goal is loftly, but the definition utterly lacking. So what constitutes “unreasonable discrimination”? If I am reading this correctly, ISPs can throttle the traffic on their systems if they do so impartially and across the board, so as to avoid discriminating against isolated applications. Using our prior example of a person streaming movies from Hulu, the ISP would be banned from shutting off service exclusively from this site to modulate service over its network. There is a gray area, however, as to adjusting traffic when a company pays a premium for streaming its services faster—something called paid prioritization. So, if you are a big company like Amazon, your site can load faster than a smaller competitor’s site, as long as you pay for this premium. Combine this possibility with the prior worry above regarding a two-tiered system and you have a new digital divide on the horizon for the user and the content-provider.
These rulings I fear do not go far enough to secure access in what is becoming a highly reliant populace on the Internet for gaining information, including health care data and resources.