Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai will likely succeed in his long-lasting quest to repeal net neutrality. On Thursday, the FCC will vote on net neutrality repeal, and the Republican-dominated commission is expected to pass the reversal of Obama-era regulations meant to curb the creation of Internet “fast lanes” which may throttle online access to certain companies and users. (UPDATE: The FCC voted on party lines to repeal net neutrality rules on Thursday.) The repeal, embraced by telecom giants like Comcast but opposed by tech critics like Google and Netflix, could have downstream consequences for a number of industries—including medical research and health care services.
There’s quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding just how wide of an effect net neutrality repeal would have on consumers. Pai has insisted that few would see major changes; but some scientific journals like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and Nature suggest it could make all kinds of scientific research more cumbersome, especially the kind that requires collaboration between scientists across multiple countries that would be playing by different sets of Internet rules.
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“The changes could affect traffic that routes through the United States, which includes plenty from South America, Central America and the Caribbean. So, in theory, terabytes of data sent from telescope arrays in Chile to physicists in Europe could be stuck in the digital slow lane as ISPs prioritize advertising-heavy social-media messages,” wrote Nature in a net neutrality editorial this week. “Or universities and students, especially those in poorer countries, could face prohibitive access and download fees.” The publication went on to note the very principle of the unencumbered exchange of information is also important to preserve.
Net neutrality repeal proponents retort that allowing faster Internet lanes for certain organizations—for instance, hospitals—would actually benefit consumers. That’s a point that’s also been made by billionaire Mark Cuban. Pai argues that paid prioritization could expand access to telemedicine services.
But critics point out that only bigger, more lucrative medical companies would be able to afford taking advantage of those fast lanes. And low-income Americans suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes may actually wind up having fewer options for health care services or be forced to rely on more expensive companies that conduct remote health monitoring and online doctor visits.