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Medicine and Why Net Neutrality Matters

Recently, the library at Einstein, where I work as a medical librarian, experienced a momentary internet outage. In that instant everything seemed to stop in its tracks.

Medical students preparing to take their STEP 1 Board exams couldn’t finish their web-based practice tests. Ph.D. candidates couldn’t download the journal articles they needed in preparation for writing their theses. Faculty members were unable to download data sets sent from collaborators across the country. Librarians were interrupted in the middle of presenting a webinar about searching for clinical research studies in PubMed to medical residents at our university hospital across town. The frustration was palpable.

After what seemed like forever―but was in reality just a few minutes―access was restored. Life, as we typically know it, resumed.

This moment and the disruption it caused illustrate how essential fast, reliable internet access is to nearly everything we do in the library and at the medical school in support of education, research and patient care.

It’s also the first thing I thought of when, just before Thanksgiving, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)―led by its chair, Ajit Pai―presented detailed plans for dismantling network neutrality.

Network neutrality in action
“Net neutrality” refers to the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should handle all data―no matter its source, destination or content―traveling through their networks in the same way. This means that individuals, community-based organizations, small businesses, educational institutions, public libraries, government agencies and large corporations are all sending and receiving information at the same speeds and levels of quality. In 2015, the FCC adopted a set of rules designed to protect net neutrality. These rules were affirmed by a federal appeals court ruling in 2016.

Because of our reliance on the internet, the current debate regarding the future of net neutrality deeply concerns me. Removing the current protections for the public that net neutrality represents could impede internet access to the web by imposing slower speeds and higher costs.  Access to educational and non-profit websites could be deprioritized in favor of commercial websites. Without net neutrality, the scientific and academic community would be subject to the whims and biases of those in power and the profit margins sought by ISPs in control of internet access.

Net neutrality is essential to education today
I’ve worked as a medical librarian in an academic health science library for more than 25 years. During that time, I’ve been directly involved in the move from print to a primarily online environment. Open and equal access to information, no matter its source, is vital to the primary mission of my library, whether it is supporting education, laboratory research or patient care. At a time when budgets are tighter than ever, the possibility of having to pay more for access to electronic resources could result in a reduction in online subscriptions.

This issue also brings to mind the digital divide. I think about my colleagues at the local branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL, which serves as the primary internet access point for many members of the community. These people use the library’s computers and Wi-Fi network in connection with many aspects of their lives, including homework, research, literacy training and applying for jobs. Like those of other public libraries, the NYPL’s mission could be jeopardized by the administration’s proposal.

Earlier this year, many organizations in the library, education and science fields took a civilized stand in support of net neutrality by submitting comments to the FCC. Among those lending their voices to protecting net neutrality is a coalition of leadership associations in higher education, including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries and EDUCAUSE.

Other organizations have also voiced concerns over the FCC chair’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” order. Yet informed conversations on this topic have largely been overshadowed by disheartening rancor and abusive language directed toward Mr. Pai. This only weakens the cause of net neutrality. Those wishing to comment should first learn more about the importance of neutrality through these statements from the Association of College & Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, and the scientific journal PLoS and use them to make a well-reasoned case.

On December 14, 2017, the FCC’s five commissioners are scheduled to vote on Mr. Pai’s new draft order. If they approve the order, it will drastically change the way we access the internet resources we rely on daily and our ability to connect and communicate effectively and efficiently. Although the FCC is not currently accepting comments, there is still time to add our voices to those supporting protection of net neutrality. Contact your representatives using this customizable email form from the American Library Association to let them know how important fair and equal access to information is to you.

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