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Not Even the FCC Knows What Its Net Neutrality Plan Actually Is

Last Updated Dec 23, 2010 7:08 PM EST

When the Federal Communications Commission held its vote on net neutrality rules, broad criticism was swift. Republican lawmakers say they'll block it. Net neutrality supporters hated that wireless was exempt, while carriers were concerned about what they characterized as its broad nature.

There's just one problem: All the reaction is to something that doesn't exist. Contrary to most reporting, FCC commissioners agreed on no net neutrality plan because there weren't three votes in favor of a specific measure, and so final details don't exist. The few near brushes with specificity on principles that the agency released have already become contentious issues. So long as the FCC drags out the process, it will lose what support it might have otherwise gained, be increasingly misunderstood, and generally scuttle any possibilities that net neutrality might have had.

With all the reports of a 3-2 vote in favor of the FCC plan, how can I say that there actually was no vote for net neutrality? Because the results of the deliberations, according to an FCC press release: show that there was no majority agreement:
Chairman Genachowski voted for the Order; Commissioner Copps concurred and Commissioner Clyburn approved in part and concurred in part. Commissioners McDowell and Baker dissented.
The vote was literally one in favor (it was Genachowski's plan in the first place), two partial agreements, and a pair of nos. In other words, the plan as a whole received insufficient support to become policy or rules.

A vote for net neutrality was widely expected because three commissioners had indicated their support. The few details publicly floated in advance suggested that there would be enough loopholes for carriers to do as they wished. A lack of details on something that most people mistakenly think has passed has only fueled additional criticism and speculation.

For example, the release states that payments for priority traffic would be "unlikely to satisfy 'no unreasonable discrimination' rule." But that refers to deals between arrangements between broadband providers and third parties. A carrier could still charge consumers more for certain types of traffic, creating a de facto state of discrimination. Will an actual plan still make that possible? Who knows?

Concerns seemed highest about the lack of regulation for wireless. A mention of Google's (GOOG) Android as an open mobile operating system choice that helped preserve an open Internet sent many into self-admitted realms of paranoia. Nate Anderson at Ars Technica took a step back, noting that these critics had paid insufficient attention to the context of the FCC's words. Nevertheless, given sharply divided opinion the net neutrality debate has seen, the reaction is no less than one might have expected. Why? The details of the real plan are missing.

Individuals have reacted. Wall Street has already begun to assign winner and loser status to businesses. You can hear the whine of hysteria screeching, smothering informed debate. Why? Because no one can debate what isn't there.

Although it would embarrass the FCC to admit that there is yet no actual plan that can go into effect, for the good of all, it is time to end the charade. Either admit that there is still no negotiated plan or release one. But leaving everyone hoodwinked is a disservice to all and to the issue itself.

Related: Image: RGBStock.com user ColinBrough, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.