Rivals Say Google Has Too Much Sway Over Administration’s Net Neutrality Policy

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Internet service providers cite e-mails between onetime Google
executive Andrew McLaughlin, who now works for the White House, and his
former colleagues as the FCC prepares to rewrite the rules governing

Reporting from Washington — Andrew McLaughlin built Google Inc.’s public policy operation
and helped craft its government lobbying strategy. Now he works for the
White House on Internet policy — and that has some Google rivals crying
foul as federal officials prepare to rewrite the rules governing
high-speed Internet.

The so-called net neutrality rules expected to be issued by the Federal
Communications Commission are seen as a boon to Google by limiting the
ability of high-speed Internet service providers, such as phone and
cable companies, to steer users to their own content.

These Internet service providers complain that Google has a leg up when
it comes to talking to the White House. They cite, among other things,
records showing that McLaughlin used his personal e-mail account to
communicate with former colleagues, including Google lobbyist Alan
Davidson, about the administration’s stance on net neutrality and other
issues related to his work.

Google and the White House say the e-mail exchanges that began in 2009
and continued through early this year were innocuous.

"Andrew had a limited number of communications with his former employer
on topics within the scope of his official duties. These communications
were incidental and had no influence on policy decisions," said Rick
Weiss, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology

Even so, McLaughlin was reprimanded in May for his actions. Weiss said
the e-mail exchanges "did violate the President’s Ethics Pledge, which
prohibits Andrew from having any contact with his former employer
regarding matters within the scope of his duties."

"Andrew regrets these violations and has taken steps to ensure they do
not occur again," Weiss said.

McLaughlin, who holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a
law degree from Harvard, declined to comment. He left his position as
the head of global public policy and government affairs at Google last
year and now serves as one of three deputy technology chiefs at the
White House.

McLaughlin’s e-mails were obtained through a public records
request filed by Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica nonprofit advocacy
group, and were first reported on by The Hill, a Washington newspaper.

John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said the e-mails suggested that
Google, an Internet behemoth with $23.7 billion in annual revenue, had
too cozy of a relationship with the White House.

"You have to sort of wonder, well, how many times did Alan Davidson pick
the phone up and have a conversation with McLaughlin?" Simpson said.
"It shows an attitude and connection that seems to me to be ongoing and

Google spokeswoman Mistique Cano said the e-mails didn’t reveal anything
surprising, however. "There is nothing in these communications that’s
not reflected in our public comments, positions or official
communications with the White House," she said.

Still, Google’s ties to the Obama White House are no secret. Google
employees were the fifth-largest corporate donors to Obama’s
presidential campaign and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt sits on
the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

California Rep. Darrell Issa ((R- Vista) wrote the White House in June
to complain that the reprimand McLaughlin received amounted to a
"bureaucratic equivalent of a slap on the wrist."

"This is not a little thing, it’s a big thing," Issa, the top Republican
on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in an

Several representatives of Google rivals declined to speak publicly
about the fracas, saying they were concerned about upsetting the
administration, as well as Google.

But the controversy had a rare public airing late last year, when
McLaughlin compared censorship in China to the need for net neutrality
during a conference hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln law

"If it bothers you that the Chinese government does it, it should bother
you when your cable company does it," McLaughlin said, as quoted by the
Washington Post.

AT&T Inc.’s top lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, called McLaughlin’s
comparison "deeply disturbing," and then attacked the FCC’s decision to
push forward in the process to adopt net neutrality principles, saying
it would benefit Google, the company that used to sign McLaughlin’s

"[T]he irony is that the FCC is now considering narrowing those
successful principles in a way that will exclude Google, a major
Internet gatekeeper," Cicconi said. "If any entity on the Internet today
has the ability to chill voices with which it disagrees, that entity is
Mr. McLaughlin’s former employer."

A White House spokeswoman pointed out that "the FCC, an independent
agency, is entrusted with developing the appropriate mechanisms to
implement" net neutrality policy. A White House official also noted that
executives from phone and cable companies, including Randall
Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and chief executive, have had multiple
meetings with President Obama and top administration officials.

Broadband service providers’ complaints could just be "sour grapes"
because Google has become more influential in Washington, said Allen
Hammond, director of the Broadband Institute of California and a
professor at Santa Clara University Law School.

He noted that "all the companies are jockeying for their position" on
net neutrality.

"They are influencing policy as much as they legally can," Hammond said.

[email protected]

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