FCC Chair Ajit Pai Falsely Claims Killing Net Neutrality Will Help Sick and Disabled People

Ajit Pai and telecom lobbyists keep repeating the lie that net neutrality is holding back telemedicine.
December 6, 2017, 8:41pm
Image: Getty

For the duration of the fight over net neutrality, there have been a constant stream of falsehoods pushed by AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to justify their frontal assault on the popular rules. One popular bogeyman has been that net neutrality rules devastated telecom sector investment, a claim consistently disproven by publicly-accessible SEC filings, earnings reports, independent analysis, and statements to investors from more than a half-dozen industry executives.

And yet, time and time again, the idea that net neutrality hurt sector investment is repeated by telecom industry lobbyists, policy vessels, and loyal lawmakers, then printed and re-printed by countless media outlets as undeniable fact.

But the net neutrality investment canard isn’t the only claim that remains stubbornly opposed to a solid debunking thanks to unskeptical media outlets in the post-truth era. Another popular claim by the sector is that net neutrality rules are somehow preventing people who are sick or disabled from gaining access to essential medical services they need to survive.

Read more: There Are 700 Protests in All 50 States Today in Support of Net Neutrality

Verizon, for example, has been trying to argue since at least 2014 that the FCC’s net neutrality rules’ ban on paid prioritization (which prevents ISPs from letting deep-pocketed content companies buy their way to a distinct network performance advantage over smaller competitors) harms the hearing impaired. That’s much to the chagrin of groups that actually represent those constituents, who have consistently and repeatedly stated that this claim simply isn’t true.

Comcast lobbyists have also repeated this patently-false claim in their attempt to lift the FCC ban on unfair paid prioritization deals.

For example, a Comcast filing from July urges the Commission to “bear in mind that a more flexible approach to prioritization may be warranted and may be beneficial to the public.” For example, Comcast argues, “a telepresence service tailored for the hearing impaired requires high-definition video that is of sufficiently reliable quality to permit users ‘to perceive subtle hand and finger motions’ in real time” and that “paid prioritization may have other compelling applications in telemedicine.”

Again, Comcast is implying that people who are sick and/or disabled can’t currently get access to the services they need because of the FCC’s current net neutrality rules. But both the 2010 and 2015 FCC rules carved out massive, obvious exceptions for such services.

The claim that net neutrality rules hurt the sick also popped up in a recent facts-optional fact sheet the agency has been circulating to try and justify the agency’s Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” net neutrality repeal

In the FCC’s current rules, the FCC was careful to distinguish between "Broadband Internet Access Services (BIAS)," which is general internet traffic like browsing, e-mail or app data and "Non-BIAS data services," which are often given prioritized, isolated capacity to ensure lower latency, better speed, and greater reliability. VoIP services, pacemakers, energy meters and all telemedicine applications fall under this category and are exempt from the rules.

Of course Comcast knows this. But the cable giant is using the specter of harming people who are sick and/or disabled to justify a more self-serving focus: eliminating rules that prevent ISPs from selling an unfair advantage to deep-pocketed content companies (including its own media arm, NBC Universal). The rules specifically ban anti-competitive prioritization deals that put smaller companies, startups, non-profits, and education institutions at a notable disadvantage.

It’s worth noting that as the net neutrality repeal gets closer, Comcast’s promises to not engage in this sort of behavior have been surely but slowly disappearing from its website and other marketing materials.

Despite the fact that the FCC’s net neutrality rules clearly exempt medical services from the ban on uncompetitive paid prioritization, FCC boss Ajit Pai has consistently tried to claim otherwise. He did so again last week during a speech in which he attempted to defend his agency from the massive backlash to its assault on net neutrality.

“By ending the outright ban on paid prioritization, we hope to make it easier for consumers to benefit from services that need prioritization—such as latency-sensitive telemedicine,” Pai said.
“By replacing an outright ban with a robust transparency requirement and FTC-led consumer protection, we will enable these services to come into being and help seniors."

Pai packs several falsehoods tightly into this statement.

One, again, nothing in the current rules bans telemedicine app and service prioritization. Two, Pai’s claims that “robust transparency requirements” and “FTC-led consumer protection” will remain post repeal are largely debunked by the fine print in his own plan, which indicates the agency intends to eliminate both the legal justification and enforcement mechanisms that actually require ISP transparency. Pai also ignores that the FTC’s authority over ISPs is currently in doubt thanks to an ongoing court battle against AT&T.

That said, the claim that net neutrality rules hurt the sick also popped up in a recent facts-optional fact sheet the agency has been circulating to try and justify the agency’s Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” net neutrality repeal.

“FACT: Restoring Internet freedom will lead to better, faster, and cheaper broadband for consumers and give startups that need priority access (such as telehealth applications) the chance to offer new services to consumers,” claims the FCC.

The implication remains that the FCC’s current net neutrality rules are preventing people who are sick and disabled from getting access to essential telemedicine services. But again, this has never, in any capacity, actually been true—since the rules carve out massive loopholes for such services. Ironically, Pai’s ongoing use of people who are sick and disabled as a prop remains one of the least controversial aspects of his agency’s blatant handout to the telecom sector.