The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s already a conspiracy theory brewing over net neutrality

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before the start of their open hearing in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Why won't they release the rules?!?!

It's been less than 24 hours since the Federal Communications Commission voted to approve strict new regulations on Internet providers, but that's the leading question coming from its critics.

Conservatives are demanding that the FCC release a full copy of the regulations that it's planning to impose on companies such as Comcast and Verizon — and taking the agency's silence as evidence of a cover-up. Readers of an FCC blog post  have suspiciously mused that "these new regulations should have been published by now." It's much the same over on Twitter.

Let's stop this nonsense right here. It's a stretch to think the FCC is withholding anything. While it was certainly within FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's power to release his draft proposal before it came to a vote, the regulations now must go through a formal process before they become official. And say what you will about bureaucratic inefficiency,  but that's the chief reason the FCC won't be releasing the rules for some time.

Not even Internet providers, who are generally frustrated by the content of the rules, are all that outraged about the delay. They're going to see the document, sooner or later. And they'll still likely sue to have them overturned.

"This is one more step in the swamp — there's much more of a slog to come," said one wireless industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely.

It's easy to see how all this "secrecy" could be confusing. Once a vote takes place and the gavel drops, shouldn't that be the moment when the world changes? After all, it's more or less how elections work, right?

Well, rulemaking is a little bit different.

"As is typical for a final rule and order," said Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman, "the final document is not available until staff makes final edits, which must be cleared by each commissioner."

"Final edits" don't mean a secret attempt by officials to scribble in new regulations at the last minute. Here's what that means instead: Under the FCC's procedures, dissenting arguments must be tallied up and responded to by the FCC's majority — in this case, the Democrats.

When that's done — probably after a few weeks — the FCC will post the rules on the agency's Web site. At that point the public will be able to see the specific language. It'll be another few weeks before the document will be published in the Federal Register, the collection of all the rules and notices adopted by the government.

For the most part, the rules won't take effect for another 60 days after that. Certain parts of the regulation will take even longer.

"Until then, a lot of nothing's going to happen," said a telecom industry official, who asked not to be named to discuss internal deliberations more freely.

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The Federal Communications Commission approved new rules about how Internet service providers get Web sites to you. Confused? Don’t worry, PostTV explains what net neutrality is and what it means for your Internet connection. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)