The U.S. Needs Network Reality Policy

In 2003, Professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality.”

Fifteen years later, it’s now time for a network reality check. That’s because net neutrality is back in the news with a quixotic Senate vote that proposes what a majority of the House and the FCC, and the President all oppose, all while rejecting real legislative proposals to enshrine net neutrality consumer protections permanently into law.   

How is network reality today different from 2003?

When net neutrality was conceived in 2003, Amazon was a company with ~$5b in revenues, Google just started generating revenues, and Facebook didn’t exist. Now America’s largest network company by annualized revenues is Amazon at $193b, not AT&T, at $160b.

The annualized revenues of the three largest edge-networks, Amazon, Google, and Facebook will likely surpass the collective revenues of the three largest ISP networks, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, sometime this fall.

If current revenue growth rates continue, expect Amazon, Google, and Facebook’s collective revenues to be twice that of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast in less than three years.

That is network reality.

The long-proven flaw of the “network neutrality” principle and policy is the tentpole assumption that there is one, and only one, type of “network” -- an Internet service provider network -- that can have market power, be anticompetitive, discriminate, block and/or throttle internet interactions, or harm consumer welfare. Edge networks can as well.

Why do proponents still ask for a network neutrality policy that imposes the strongest possible utility regulation on competitive broadband ISPs that have an outstanding fifteen-year track record of respecting net neutrality, to protect winner-take-all, edge networks, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, that act anticompetitively, discriminatorily, block and throttle internet interactions, and harm consumer welfare?

In other words, why should the U.S. Government focus on preventing bad network discrimination activity where there isn’t any, but do little to prevent real pervasive and pernicious edge network-enabled Internet activity like: political censorship; racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination; hate speech; foreign election interference; aiding and abetting terrorism; fake news, fake ads, fake accounts, fake likes, fake tweets, fake search results; incivility; cyberbullying; robocalls; data theft, identity theft, ransomware, viruses; abuse of children’s privacy; deceptive tech addiction by design; etc.?

If one thinks that’s surreality, consider this.  

Since 2003 there have been eight distinct generations or changes of FCC net neutrality policy. That is more than one major change every two years!


1.      2004 Powell-FCC Internet Freedoms speech;


2.      2005 Martin-FCC Broadband Policy Statement;


3.      2008 Martin-FCC Comcast Broadband Order;


4.      2010 Comcast v. FCC decision overturning the FCC;


5.      2010 Genachowski-FCC Open Internet Order;


6.      2014 Verizon v. FCC decision overturning the FCC;


7.      2015 Wheeler-FCC Open Internet Order; and


8.      2017 Pai-FCC Restoring Internet Freedom order, overturning the 2015 FCC order.

What this means is that net neutrality proponents have attempted to create permanent FCC net neutrality rules three times and have been overturned three different times, twice by the D.C. Court of Appeals (2010 & 2014), and once by a different majority FCC (2017).

That’s strike three for an FCC-based resolution of net neutrality.

It doesn’t have to be this crazy.  

For much of the last decade there has been a continuous, open invitation from the broadband industry, and a near continuous opportunity from Congress to settle this counter-productive issue permanently in law, not FCC rules.

If net neutrality was truly about protecting American consumers/voters, net neutrality consumer protections would be enshrined in law by now, or on path to be passed into law soon.

In words, proponents may say they support net neutrality to protect consumers, but their deeds in long-opposing any legislative resolution that would end the non-neutral, non-productive, ping-pong mess chronicled above, proves their version of net neutrality is less about protecting American consumers and more about protecting the edge interests of the Internet Association, most specifically, Google, Amazon, and Facebook.  

Its common sense, any U.S. policy that involves networks of consumers and is purported to protect those consumers, must put consumers’ interests first, not edge interests first.    


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an internetization consultancy specializing in how the Internet affects competition, markets, the economy, and policy, for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Internet platform competitors. He is also Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.