FCC official says Google, Facebook had little say on net neutrality

The FCC’s landmark decision on net neutrality has produced all sorts of speculation about the degree to which well-known tech giants shaped the outcome.

Gawker, for instance, claimed that Americans can thank a benevolent Facebook-Google cabal for the open internet rules that were passed last Thursday. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, has suggested instead that Google has been conspiring behind the scenes to weaken the rules. So what’s the real story?

“The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook sat this one out … I don’t what this person is smoking” said FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn in reference to the Gawker story.

Sohn was speaking Tuesday at a Freedom to Connect event in New York City, where journalist Sam Gustin of Vice asked her about the ruling and what comes next. The 3-2 ruling, which reclassified ISP’s as common carriers, came as a surprise to many given that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was once skeptical to the measure and because of fierce opposition from the telecom industry.

According to Sohn, Wheeler’s ultimate decision did not come about as a result of pressure from corporations or the White House. Instead, she said Wheeler (who is not a lawyer) came to reassess the situation after learning about various legal nuances, and in response to a series of external developments, including a time last spring when his Netflix service started sputtering.

Sohn did, however, credit the White House and members of Capitol Hill for providing “covering fire” as it became clear that Wheeler’s office intended to go forward with reclassification. She added that the FCC’s final decision did not come about as a result of any single factor (including comedian John Oliver), but rather from broad public support.

As for corporate influence, Sohn appeared on Tuesday to chastise the tech industry for not lending more public support to net neutrality, though she did credit Google for providing a small boost late in the process.

“Google to its credit said Title II [the reclassification law] wouldn’t hurt its investment in Fiber… Facebook has said nothing,” Sohn said.

Ultimately, the guessing game over the tech industry’s role in the net neutrality debate may remain just that — a guess. While it seems probable that an 11th hour call by Google persuaded Wheeler to back away from a two-step reclassification for interconnection (the so-called “middle-mile” where ISP’s and websites connect), for now there’s little to support any grander theories.

In the meantime, there will be plenty more for internet policy types to chew on while they wait for the official copy of the final decision to emerge in the next week or two.

Sohn predicted that “people will try to grind the FCC to a standstill” through budget threats and partisan hearings in the coming months. She added, though, that the issue may become less partisan since many groups who ordinarily support Republicans, who are the main antagonists of the new rules, are in favor of net neutrality.

Finally, as Sohn spoke, her boss Chairman Wheeler was wrapping up an appearance at the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona, where he told the audience that phone carriers’ massive recent spectrum purchases belied the idea that the new rules would dissuade companies from investing in the internet.

FCC votes yes on net neutrality in partisan spectacle

It took four million public comments and a pitched political fight invoking everything from civil rights to Presidential power, but the FCC has finally passed new rules on net neutrality.

On Thursday, the FCC voted to reclassify broadband internet providers as “common carriers,” as part of a new order that will forbid ISPs from slowing down or speeding up web traffic, or cutting any deals with websites to offer them special service.

The outcome of the vote, which took place along 3-2 partisan lines, was widely expected, but the process served to provide additional details about how exactly the new internet rules will apply.

While the specific text of the regulations will not be posted for a week or two, and the FCC issued only a short summary, officials’ comments suggested that the FCC will carry out one reclassification rather than two.

Earlier reports had suggested that the agency was considering conducting a separate legal process for imposing net neutrality on the so-called “middle mile” of the internet — where ISPs connect with websites (as opposed to ISPs connecting to consumers).

But the FCC appears to have concluded that a single legal step will suffice to ensure that ISPs can’t unreasonably throttle sites like Netflix in order to extract a payment.

The agency also confirmed that the rules would, for the first time, apply to mobile internet services. In addition, it stated that it would it exempt broadband providers from rate regulations and other burdensome obligations that come with common carrier reclassification.

The five commissioners are holding a press conference right after the hearing, and I’ll update with any new details and clarifications (see below).

Bright lines and “general conduct” — how it will work

In a press conference following the vote, Wheeler and FCC staff provided additional details about how the rules will work in practice — though not to the full satisfaction of everyone in the hearing.

The two biggest issues concern interconnection (ie if Verizon can charge Netflix not to impede its stream), and so-called zero rating. The latter term describes situations where an ISP or phone carrier decides certain apps or services, such as music, don’t count against a customer’s monthly data cap.

In both situations, the FCC explained the three new bright line rules — no blocking, no throttling, no fast lanes — do not apply.

Instead, the agency will use a catch-all general conduct provision to stop practices that the FCC deems “unjust” and “unreasonable” under the common carrier law.

FCC staff added that this system does not mean that ISP’s will have to seek permission to charge for interconnection, or to offer free data plans. But all the same, the agency will step in if companies have gone too far, and will investigate complaints.

The upshot is that my colleague Stacey Higginbotham appears to have been correct when she suggested earlier this month that the general conduct rule could serve as a big loophole in an otherwise sound set of rules.

The bottom line is that the new rules (unless they’re upended by a court or Congress) will ensure ISP’s like Verizon and Comcast can’t offer fast lanes, or direct consumers to one website over another. Also, the FCC has now asserted clear authority for the first time over interconnection deals and zero rating — but it is far from clear how it will use that authority.

Civil rights and socialism

In a reflection of how politicized the net neutrality debate has become, some of the commissioners embarked on long soliloquies to equate the vote with larger narratives of their parties.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn suggested that the new net neutrality rules served to further broader goals of justice and civil rights.

Meanwhile, her two Republican counterparts characterized the new rules as a “radical departure” that would lead the government to cripple the internet.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, in particular, spoke at unusual length to repeat GOP talking points that the reclassification decision was part of a larger, sinister agenda by President Obama to usurp power from citizens.

Chairman Tom Wheeler dismissed this rhetoric, however, saying, “This plan is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech.”

The preamble to the presentation included an address from the CEO of Etsy, and from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in support of the new rules.

Here’s a guide to how the process unfolded today, and the upcoming court battles.

This story was updated at 2:45pm ET with details of the proposal.

FCC votes 3-2 to override state bans of municipal broadband

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday morning voted to push aside laws in two states that restrict municipalities from building out their local high speed broadband networks.

In a 3-2 vote, the FCC granted petitions from Chattanooga, North Carolina and Wilson, North Carolina that asked the agency to invoke its powers under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to “remove barriers” to infrastructure access.

The upshot is that the FCC has invoked federal power to pre-empt state laws that, according to advocates for the municipalities, were passed at the behest of big telecom companies.

While Thursday’s vote applies only to Tennessee or North Carolina, it will provide legal ammunition for towns in more than twenty other states that confront laws banning or restricting municipal-run broadband services.

The Democratic Commissioners who voted in favor of pre-emption used their platform at the hearing to call attention to towns across the country that lack basic broadband access because private companies won’t build it.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn observed that millions of Americans are “trapped in digital darkness,” and can’t access high-speed internet service that would let them access telework and school services, especially during snow days.

The two Republican Commissioners questioned the legal authority of the FCC, under Section 706, to override the state laws, and raised concern about its effect on the private market.

“It’s not the government’s role to offer services instead of or in competition with private actors,” said Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, who likened town services to nationalization in Russia, Venezuela and Cuba.

Chairman Tom Wheeler, however, said the state laws were “thickets of red tape to limit competition,” and said the agency was cutting away that red tape consistent with Congress’s instructions to ensure a competitive broadband market. He also suggested that the Republicans were acting hypocritically by claiming to be in favor of broadband, while also throwing their lot in with those who want to restrict access to it.

Wheeler also called attention to Tennessee residents in the audience who lived within miles of Chattanooga’s super-fast gigabyte fiber network, but are stuck with slow internet service because state laws won’t let the city utility sell its service to them.

The municipal broadband issue is one of two major issues that the FCC is voting on today. Later on Thursday, the Commission will vote on the hot button net neutrality issue.

 

Net Neutrality day is here: a guide to today’s vote

What is the right way to run the internet? After months of pitched debate over so-called net neutrality, the FCC will finally vote on a proposal that will prevent broadband providers from slowing down or speeding up certain websites.

While there’s little doubt about the outcome of the vote, Thursday’s FCC hearing could still bring some surprises. Here’s an overview of how the process will unfold, key issues to watch, and what will happen next.

When is the vote taking place?

The hearing begins at 10:30am ET at the FCC in Washington, where the five Commissioners will vote on two items. The net neutrality proposal is the second item (the first is about municipal broadband – update: which has passed 3-2), and a vote is expected to occur in the early afternoon.

What are they voting on?

The crux of the proposal is new regulations that will replace the net neutrality rules that a court struck down in early 2014. The new rules themselves (contrary to recent rhetoric) are rumored to be 8 pages long and, under FCC convention, are an appendix to a larger document that contains the Commissioners’ positions.

The FCC staff will summarize the key parts of the new rules, but the document itself is not likely to be available to the public for several weeks. This is due to agency protocol, which gives the Commissioners time to add final comments (though the substance of the rules will not change between now and when they appear).

How exactly does the vote take place, and what will be the outcome?

After the staff summaries, each of the five Commissioner will offer their comments in order of seniority. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has been an outspoken critic, is expected to speak for an hour so this could take some time. They will then take a vote, and hold a press conference.

The outcome will be a 3-2 vote on partisan lines, with the two Democratic Commissioners siding with Chairman Tom Wheeler. (Update: that’s exactly what happened)

What are the key things to watch?

While the outcome of the vote is a sure thing, some key details of the proposal are still unknown. The most high profile of these concerns what the FCC will do about so-called interconnection, and what the rules will do to prevent ISPs from forcing sites like Netflix to pay a toll in return for not having their streams degraded.

There is also the issue of “zero rating,” which is when phone and companies exclude certain apps or services (such as music) from a customer’s monthly data cap. While this violates the general principle of net neutrality, Chairman Wheeler has yet to explain how strictly the new rules will prevent this. (Read my colleague Stacey Higginbottam’s excellent overview of potential loopholes here).

Finally, since much of the recent net neutrality debate has been about theater, it will be worth watching to see how far Commissioner Pai (who has been waging a nasty political and social media campaign against Wheeler) will go to stir the pot during the hearing.

So will the new net neutrality rules go into effect right away?

No. According to Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, the rules only go into effect 30 days after they appear in the Federal Register, which could take a few weeks.

Will there be lawsuits?

Yes, buckets of them. Expect big telecom companies like Verizon or AT&T to sue in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it’s possible that activist groups on both the right and the left may bring suits of their own.

What will be the effect of the lawsuits?

Feld says, in the event of multiple lawsuits, the first order of business will be for various appeals courts to decide which of them will take the case. After that, the telecom companies are likely to receive a brief stay of the rules until they can file their first round of arguments. At that point, the stay will likely be lifted while the court hears the case.

The court cases are likely to kick off in March or April, and a ruling on whether the new FCC plan is legal will probably come in late 2015 or early 2016. In the meantime, the net neutrality rules will be in effect.

I just can’t get enough of this stuff! Where can I learn more?

Gigaom will have updates on the days proceedings through Thursday. The FCC will have a live stream here (if the internet holds up!).

I’ll be tweeting about it here. Other Twitter accounts to watch are those of Gigi Sohn (FCC lawyer), Commissioner Pai, Public Knowledge’s Feld and Professor Tim Wu (who coined “net neutrality” in the first place).

For political flavor: The New York Times has opined on the FCC’s “wise new rules” here while the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, hates everything about the FCC (paywall).

This story was corrected at 10:05am to note the court decision was in 2014, not 2013.

The FCC’s other big vote: small cities await their broadband fate

The big battle over net neutrality will go to a vote on Thursday but, for many people in small cities, it’s the other item on the agenda that matters most: whether the agency will allow two towns to build their own broadband infrastructure.

“It’s a way of letting local communities control their own fate. I don’t see a difference between broadband and gas or electricity,” said Harold DePriest, who is the CEO of EBP, a city-run fiber network in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

His city, along with Wilson, North Carolina (population 49,000), will soon find out if the FCC will grant their request to pre-empt state laws that restrict municipalities’ ability to offer broadband.

Those state laws are necessary, according to their supporters, to protect taxpayers from profligate city governments. Critics claim, however, that the laws are the result of undue influence exercised in state capitals by big telecom companies seeking to preserve their monopolies.

For places like Chattanooga, a lot rides on the outcome. The town’s fiber network, which offers 100 megabyte broadband for $58 a month and a gigabyte for $70, has led Chattanooga to brand itself as the “gig city,” where companies reliant on high speed internet can set up shop. It’s also about access.

“We feel this is an issue of local control. Here in Tennessee, we have homes that live in a digital desert,” said DePriest, who added that municipalities in many places have to step in when corporations fail to build the high-speed internet that is essential for modern business, education and entertainment services.

If the agency grants the petition at Thursday’s vote, Chattanooga and Wilson will immediately be able to expand their offerings. More significantly, a vote in favor of the petitions will provide legal footing to other towns across the country that face restrictions on municipal broadband.

In the case of Chattanooga, DePriest says the state law has led the city utility to be dragged into court five times at considerable expense. He hopes Thursday’s FCC vote will put a stop to this.

“I don’t like litigation. The only ones who win are lawyers, but this is too important for small town America, it’s worth fighting for.”

The vote will take place late morning EST. The cities are expected to prevail since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated he is in favor of pre-emption. We’ll have an update on the outcome.

Mark Cuban on net neutrality: FCC can’t protect competition

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As someone who takes her cues on net neutrality from Gigaom’s resident expert Stacey Higginbotham or, failing that, John Oliver, this is hard to admit: Mark Cuban may have a point on why the proposed net neutrality regulations may be a cure that’s worse than the disease.

If adopted, he maintained, these regs will open the door to more confusion, more litigation and more overall turmoil, none of which will serve consumers well. Before you throw your device at the wall, just give him a listen. Cuban, the serial entrepreneur who started out as a VAR before founding Broadcast.com which sold to [company]Yahoo[/company] in a $5.7 billion stock deal in 1999. He is now owner of the Dallas Mavericks, co-star of Shark Tank and CEO of of AXS TV  and interestingly a star of new AT&T commercials. The hyphens just keep coming.

Here’s his gist on net neutrality. He doesn’t think the big bad ISPs have behaved all that badly, or all that differently, than they ever have, so why all the hubbub now?

“It’s not like [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Comcast[/company] have recently become super big companies and changed their actions… One of the tenets of net neutrality is that no legal website should be discriminated against. Well, name me one that has been.” He also pretty much dismisses [company]Netflix[/company] claims that it in fact faced such discrimination.

He sees competition ramping up in both in wired and wireless access — if these markets are so foreclosed why is Google doing broadband? Why is “AT&T going out of its traditional TV markets where they have U-verse to compete with Comcast and Google? That’s one layer. On the other layer you have mobile, with [company]Cablevision[/company] going into Manhattan where [company]Verizon[/company] and AT&T have broadband wireless and putting together an unwired wifi network for $30 a month’

His point is that there is competition, although it may not be the competition we would all like to see.

Cuban is clearly worried about one, well two mega players and neither one is a big ISP. “I would rather see national competition for [company]Google[/company] than no competition for Google. If you put a lid on Time Warner and Comcast and Google just keeps adding more and more markets, who’s going to compete with them?”

Google and [company]Apple[/company] constitute a huge countervailing force for all the ISPs because of their mobile might. “The fastest growing access for Internet is mobile. Who controls access to mobile? Google and Apple. The far greater risk is if Apple decides that the Comcast app is not right, Comcast won’t be able to reach most of its market to give access to its own broadband. Kind of crazy but it’s a possibility.” For the record, he isn’t recommending regulation to stop that either.

His point isn’t that Comcast or Time Warmer or insert-your-least-favorite cable provider here) are so great — he admits they are not — it’s just that the FCC its regulations are ill equipped to deal with fast-changing technologies. The public would be better served to let the cable companies duke it out with each other and, perhaps more to the point, with far scarier competitors including Google and Apple.

He starts about 10 minutes in. But here is the kill shot: Do you really want the same organization (the FCC) that took 8 years to deal with Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII to be the gating factor in the internet? Ummmm, maybe not.

Listen to the whole thing to find out how you, too, can get in touch with Cuban, such a shy and reserved guy, to ask your own questions on net neutrality; whether the NBA is seeing diminishing returns on data analytics; and why the heck the Celtics let the Mavs steal Rajon Rondo. Whatever.

Businessman and TV personality Mark Cuban speaks onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt at Pier 48 on September 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

Businessman and TV personality Mark Cuban speaks onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt at Pier 48 on September 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

In our intro section, Jonathan Vanian and I discuss all (or a bunch anyway) of this week’s Kubernetes news — where Mirantis was latest into the pool, working with Google to bring the cluster management framework to OpenStack clouds, joining HP and a raft of other tech vendors endorsing the open-source framework. Interestingly, Spotify blazed its own trail,  Helios as opposed to Kubernetes for its own workloads.

Oh and we wonder what is up, exactly, with HP’s cloud now that Marten Mickos has stepped back from his leadership job — after just six months.

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Porn exec touts net neutrality in rare call for regulation

Smut sellers normally prefer that the government stay far away from their business. But when it comes to how the FCC oversees the internet, the adult industry says proposed net neutrality rules are needed to ensure internet providers don’t start assigning moral value to web traffic.

“One gigabyte of data is one gigabyte of data, whether it’s House of Cards or Shemales.xxx,” Stuart Lawley, a web tycoon who operates domains like .porn and .sex, told me on the phone. “What the consumers is paying for is the big pipe, and the speed of the pipe and quality of data that comes down that pipe.”

Lawley fears porn sites are low-hanging fruit for ISPs that want to charge websites a toll in exchange for not throttling their data streams, and that large purveyors like Mindgeek (which runs sites like RedTube and Pornhub) would be an easy target.

The porn industry has few friends in Congress but Lawley said that, in the case of net neutrality, larger principles are at stake.

He pointed out that ISPs could use domain suffixes as a source of discrimination when delivering web traffic — and not just pornographic ones like .sex. Without net neutrality rules, he said an ISP could degrade the traffic of sites that suggest a religious affiliation: “You could have ISPs run by certain people who have certain racial or religious views who might slow Jewish websites.”

As such, Lawley said he is in favor of the proposed rules that the FCC will vote on this week, which will bar ISPs from giving special treatment to some sites.

The FCC also plans to invoke new legal authority to oversee so-called interconnection fees, or tolls of the sort Lawley fears ISPs will extract from his industry.

These fees became an issue when Verizon and Comcast imposed them on Netflix, leading the video company to blast them as a form of extortion.

Adult-related websites, which account for five on an Alexa list of the top 100 most-visited sites in 2014, have yet to complain publicly about similar practices. But the site Pornhub participated in an “internet slowdown day” last year in which numerous mainstream sites, including Reddit and Etsy, brought the issue of net neutrality to the public’s attention.

Twitter is latest to boost FCC’s net neutrality plan

Twitter came out on Monday in support of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to impose net neutrality, which is slated for a critical vote on Thursday, praising it as a way to ensure free communications and an open internet.

“Safeguarding the historic open architecture of the internet and the ability for all users to ‘innovate without permission’ is critical to American economic aspirations and our nation’s global competitiveness. These rules also have important implications for freedom of expression,” said the company in a blog post.

[company]Twitter[/company]’s endorsement of the plan, which would prevent ISPs from speeding up some websites at the expense of others, is significant given the company’s role as a major media company, and its historical advocacy of free speech.

In its blog post, Twitter pointed out a familiar refrain of net neutrality advocates: that emerging companies depend on access to the internet platforms that will carry their products and ideas.

“This openness promotes free and fair competition and fosters ongoing investment and innovation … Without such net neutrality principles in place, some of today’s most successful and widely-known Internet companies might never have come into existence.”

Twitter also endorses Wheeler’s plan to use so-called Title II rules, and treat ISPs as common carriers, in order to enforce net neutrality. Those rules have touched off a massive lobbying campaign by Republicans backed by the cable industry, which is seeking to characterize the measure as executive overreach. Twitter, however, pointed out that the agency is applying the rules in a “light touch” fashion, and avoiding the more burdensome parts of the regulation.

Twitter’s decision to publicly endorse Title II comes after a variety of other companies, including [company]Netflix[/company] and Etsy, have argued the rules are necessary to ensure ISP’s don’t use their control over internet pipes to stifle potential competition.

Entrepreneurs embrace net neutrality plan (except Mark Cuban)

Propaganda machines are running full-blast ahead of next week’s landmark vote on net neutrality, so readers should take most “news” about the FCC with a grain of salt. That said, it’s worth noting a new letter in the debate over whether net neutrality will protect entrepreneurs (as supporters claim) or if it will instead damn small business to crushing regulations, as Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, backed by the telecom industry, is warning.

The letter comes via the advocacy group Engine, and is signed by more than 100 startups and emerging businesses. Many of the names are unfamiliar but some — including Yelp, Etsy, Kickstarter, Tumblr and GitHub – are among America’s favorite new companies.

Their position, in short, is that the FCC’s proposed “Title II” rules, which would forbid ISPs from giving special treatment to some websites over others, is not the regulatory bugbear of Pai’s imagination:

“Any claim that a net neutrality plan based in Title II would somehow burden “small, independent businesses and entrepreneurs with heavy-handed regulations that will push them out of the market” is simply not true,” the letter said. It added, “The threat of ISPs abusing their gatekeeper power to impose tolls and discriminate against competitive companies is the real threat to our future.”

This, of course, is part of a public relations effort but it doesn’t change the fact that all these companies, which are run by sophisticated and successful entrepreneurs, put their names on it.

The entrepreneurs could be lying or maybe they’re deluded. The better bet, though, is that the they genuinely favor rules to prevent the likes of Comcast or Verizon using their power over pipes as a cudgel to demand money or favors.

So are there any bonafide entrepreneurs (as opposed to Pai and the telecom giants) concerned about the regulatory burden of Title II? Well, there’s at least one.

On Wednesday, Dallas Mavericks owner and startup booster Mark Cuban was at it again, railing at a Re/code conference how the FCC will “fuck up everything” with its new rules. (He’s made such rants before).

Normally, it’s worth paying attention to Cuban since he’s bang-on about other issues involving small business, especially patent reform, and has a lot of pull in investment circles.

On this one, though, his concern may be overblown since the FCC has been clear that it’s taking a light touch to Title II and will be using it to prevent internet throttling, while also staying clear of measures like rate regulation or forced access. (One also wonders if Cuban’s F-bombs have anything to do with the fact that he is the chairman of a cable network).

So there you have it. You entrepreneurs out there can join Etsy and all, and run the risk of FCC regulations, or throw your lot in with Cuban and put yourselves at the mercy of the big ISPs.

Here’s the Engine letter, which is short, and has all the companies’ names:

Engine Letter Re FCC

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Love or hate net neutrality, GOP probe is pointlesss

Let the dog and pony show begin! Republicans in Congress and their cable company allies are smarting over news that the FCC will reclassify internet providers, and have responded with not one, but two investigations that seek to uncover illegal meddling by the White House.

The twin probes, which are being led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R.-Wis) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), call on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to explain how he came to favor net neutrality — a policy that prevents ISPs from giving special treatment to some websites over others when they deliver broadband.

Net neutrality is indeed an important issue, and Republicans are within their rights to implement investigations of it. The problem, however, is that their premise for probing Wheeler appears to be completely baseless.

According to Senator Johnson, the purpose of the investigation is to determine if Wheeler’s decision resulted from “undue outside pressures, particularly from the White House.” The message is that President Obama has someone flouted the rule of law, and run roughshod over an independent agency.

But there’s little evidence to justify such a charge. While Johnson cites public remarks by the President and a report in the Wall Street Journal about the White House’s interest in the net neutrality file, that’s hardly a smoking gun.

More importantly, the Republicans have yet to explain how exactly they think the White House behaved illegally. Johnson’s public letter says the executive branch’s behavior has been “inappropriate from a constitutional standpoint” and “improper from an Administrative Procedures Act perspective,” but fails to point to specific laws or regulations.

Unfortunately for net neutrality critics, “inappropriate” and “improper” seem pretty thin gruel, even as a political charge. And they almost certainly fall far short of material for a lawsuit.

While Presidents typically steer clear of saying what independent agencies should or should not do, President Obama is hardly the first to speak up on an FCC issue. Indeed, every chief executive in the last 30 years has stuck their oar in the water at one time or another, according to Harold Feld, a senior lawyer with the advocacy group Public Knowledge.

“By strong convention, the President is supposed to respect the independence of the agency, and Presidents generally save their ammo on this for things they really care about. There are good reasons for this general rule,” wrote Feld by email. “But there are also good reasons for the President to speak up from time to time — particularly on matters of national importance such as the fate of broadband (Obama), reducing the influence of money on politics (Clinton) and the fate of media ownership rules (Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II).”

Feld, who has created a graphic of Presidential pronouncements about FCC issues, added that there is no law that prevents the President from sharing his views about the agency or from talking to its Chairman. Meanwhile, none of the previous Presidents’ remarks on FCC issues have resulted in a court action — meaning it’s near certain that Obama’s won’t either.

So what’s going on? In the view of Berin Szoka of TechFreedom, a group critical of Wheeler’s proposal, the legal case is “subtle” but turns on two issues: whether the White House “threatened” Wheeler as the head of an independent agency, and whether the executive violated an anti-lobbying law by having FCC staff lobby Congress. Or something.

The better explanation is that the twin Congressional investigations are no more than a political stunt to muddy the waters in the net neutrality debate. That’s a shame. No matter what you think of the substance of Wheeler’s proposal — you can read about a Republican FCC Commissioners’ latest objections here and here — the American public deserves better on this matter than Congress’s “investigations.”