Could repealing net neutrality be bad for our health?

Net Neutrality
Sammi LeMaster helps to dismantle a large alarm clock display after a protest at the Federal Communications Commission Thursday.

Repealing net neutrality could be bad for American health care.

The Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to repeal Obama-era rules that require internet service providers, companies that connect your computer to the internet like Comcast and Verizon, to treat all websites equally. The rules prohibit ISPs from speeding up or slowing down traffic to a site for financial or other reasons.

Net neutrality makes all websites equally accessible. It puts start-up sites on the same footing as the sites of large corporate players like Google and Facebook. Without those rules, ISPs could reward sites that pay fees for faster access and punish those that do not.

The effects of repealing the rules could reach far and wide. They could even affect the future of health care.

The internet is key to the spread of telemedicine, the next frontier in medical practice. This technology gives patients in rural areas and those with limited mobility the same access to top physicians as those who live in big cities and have greater mobility. It can bring expert consultations into patients’ homes and allow them to share information with physicians who are thousands of miles away. In the not-too-distant future, telemedicine may help everyone to see top specialists for examinations and even treatments from the comfort of home.

But telemedicine consultations, which travel over the internet, require the transmission of large amounts of data. They rely on data-hogging video, and the video must be encrypted to comply with federal privacy rules, adding additional data demands. Without net neutrality rules, ISPs might balk at providing sufficient bandwidth.

The major ISPs promise that they will continue to abide by the principles of net neutrality, even without a legal mandate. But telemedicine consultations may have to connect to the networks of smaller ISPs in rural areas that may not follow suit. And what guarantees are there that the larger ISPs will keep their promises indefinitely in the face of financial temptation? Telemedicine uses bandwidth that could be redirected to corporate sites willing to pay top dollar. Medical practices, especially smaller ones, may have difficulty affording the cost.

And as medicine advances, new web-based technologies are certain to arise and face similar impediments. Wider use of electronic medical records is especially at risk.

The internet has become essential for many aspects of our lives. If net neutrality goes away and the open internet disappears, it is not just access to social media and movie downloads that could become more difficult. The future of medical innovation could be diminished as well.