Key net neutrality supporters hire former government officials to lobby

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Two of the biggest proponents of net neutrality rules for broadband providers involved in closed door congressional committee negotiations have hired 112 former government officials to lobby as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have both pushed new broadband Internet policies.

For the first three months of 2010, seventy-four percent of the lobbyists hired by both Google* and Microsoft have previous experience in government, according to data obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics and lobbyist disclosure forms. This is a very similar number when compared to the percentage of former government officials hired to lobby for the top six telecommunications organizations.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation and the House Committee on Energy & Commerce are holding meetings with industry and consumer organizations in response to a series of actions by the FCC including a court decision that blocked the FCC’s attempted implementation of net neutrality rules. Net neutrality rules would disallow broadband service providers from discriminating against users and content by preventing them from slowing access to certain users and charging money to acesss certain content.

The committees held their first meeting last Friday and plan to host another meeting on July 2.

Google and Microsoft are spending the most on lobbying among the pro-net neutrality organizations invited to the behind the scenes discussions with the two committees.

According to first quarter lobbying disclosures, the two companies have spent a combined $2.1 million on lobbying. By comparison, the two lobbying spenders opposed to net neutrality that were invited to the congressional meetings shelled out $10.5 million in the first quarter of 2010.

Despite spending far less than organizations opposed to net neutrality, Google and Microsoft have fielded a quality team of lobbyists with experience working for important lawmakers and on crucial committees.

Combined the companies have hired thirteen former staffers of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation or members of the committee and nine former staffers of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce or their members.

These lobbyists include Barry LaSala, the former chief of staff to the Senate committee’s number two Democrat Sen. John Kerry, who lobbies for Microsoft. LaSala also lobbies for net neutrality opponent Verizon.

Andy Scott Wright, lobbying for Google, worked previously as the Chief of Staff to Rep. Rick Boucher, chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. Boucher is leading the meetings for the House Committee on Energy & Commerce.

The representatatives in the closed door congressional meetings for both Google and Microsoft have experience on the committees. Google’s Johanna Shelton previously worked on the House Committee on Energy & Commerce and Microsoft’s Paula Boyd used to work for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation.

Other Internet companies supporting net neutrality might be spending far less than Google and Microsoft, but they are also largely hiring former government officials to lobby for them.

Over eighty percent of the lobbyists retained by both eBay and Amazon.com—of these two only Amazon.com is engaged in the congressional meetings—have experience in government.

(*Disclosure: Google senior manager Kim Scott sits on the Advisory Board of the Sunlight Foundation. Kim Scott sits on the Advisory Board of the Sunlight Foundation, but no longer works for Google.)

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  • Phil

    Thank you, Paul, you’ve answered my questions.

  • Brett Glass

    The abovementioned quotes regarding “net neutrality” shows that the Sunlight Foundation is in bed with Google. Note that the proposed “net neutrality” regulations — which were edited according to Google’s wishes — are actually not “neutral” at all; they would discriminate in favor of Google. In particular, they throw insurmountable barriers to entry in front of any would-be competitors and would protect Google’s monopolies. The Sunlight Foundation’s misrepresentation of the true intent and effect of the regulations demonstrates that it already is in league with Google and its corporate agendas, and destroys its credibility as a source of information about corporate lobbying and influence.

  • Phil

    Paul, thank you for your response. Personally I’m struggling to see how the posts that are strongly associated with net neutrality (not necessarily this post) fit into the Foundation’s mission, and it is possible that I’m reading bias into this post in particular simply to fill in the blanks.

    As far as signs of bias I can point to, the word “discriminate” to describe what net neutrality opposes stands out as one. It is grammatically correct in its place but it’s also a common signal term in political rhetoric (it catches people’s attention, if nothing else). Consider the original sentence (1) after a minor edit (2).

    1) Net neutrality rules would disallow broadband service providers from discriminating against users and content by preventing them from slowing access to certain users and charging money to acesss certain content.

    2) Net neutrality rules would prevent broadband service providers from slowing access to certain users and charging money to acesss certain content.

    The two sentences are equivalent, but I’m more inclined to think negatively about the post (“it’s biased!”) or about SPs (“they’re discriminating!”) after reading the first sentence. It’s hard for me to read the word “discriminate” without then becoming biased myself. The second sentence in my opinion has less rhetorical baggage and is arguably easier to read. Do you agree?

    Another potential sign of bias is in the presence of Foundation board members that are associated with vocal supporters of net neutrality, which you touched on briefly in your comment. The blog represents the Foundation in the eyes of the casual reader, and it’s natural (although unfair) to assume you’re writing in the board members’ personal best interests. The fuzzy boundary between an organization and its executives today adds suspicion to any form of association, and avoiding that suspicion requires transparency, of course, but also a good faith effort to distinguish two potentially-but-not-actually allied groups (e.g. Sunlight and Google) from each other. How this can be done is beyond my knowing, though.

    You say the post focuses on the lobbyist revolving door, and I see what you’re saying on a second read. I believe I had unfairly characterized the post as being focused on net neutrality with the lobbyists and their associations being secondary. My opinions and outstanding questions regarding net neutrality still stand, but I apologize for the mischaracterization of this post.

    I have no opinion about Scott or Lessig or about astroturfing. I’m largely ignorant about the pros and cons of transparency in any domain(hence all my questions to make sure I’m getting a reasonable perspective here), so I appreciate the mention of Lessig’s New Republic article “Against Transparency.” I’ll try to find time to read it.

    • Phil,

      Thanks for the response.

      The word “discriminate” does carry with it some baggage and I probably should have thought about that before using it. I was simply just using the word for its definition and was not aware of the coded language around the issue.

      I can understand how certain board members may make someone view our work as being influenced by them, considering that no one except those that work here understand what goes on at Sunlight. All that I can really say about myself is that I have never thought about who is on our board or where our money comes from when writing anything. I could maybe tell you the names of everyone on our board. Maybe, although I kind of doubt it. I also don’t get any dictates about what to or what not to write about.

      As for our funding, it is all listed on our web site. We don’t hide any of it. If I’m correct, the donation from Google related to receiving Google ads or something. We also have filed lobbyist disclosure forms which show the issues and bills on which we have lobbied.

      As to your question about how this relates to the business of Sunlight: A lot of my writing focuses on using the types of information made available thanks to disclosure policies to report on influence in politics. I spent a lot of time writing about the lobbyists and campaign contributions surrounding Sen. Max Baucus during the health care debate and also wrote about the deal the Obama administration made with the pharmaceutical companies by using lobbyist disclosures, campaign finance disclosures and White House visitor logs. I’ve also written about alternative energy company influence along with oil & gas company influence. And so on.

      Hope that this answers some of your questions. Also, thanks for responding thoughtfully.

  • Brett Glass

    I am sure that Kim Scott has quite a lot of Google stock and stock options. Millions of dollars’ worth, in fact.

    As for Lessig: since you kept him on your board he obviously did not criticize you very severely.

    Regarding transparency of tax-exempt organizations: I was, in fact, appalled when I first found out that astroturf groups such as Free Press are required to publish all of their IRS Forms 990 EXCEPT for the lists of donors. Hiding money trails should not be legal. If a group gets a tax exemption, it should be required to be transparent.

    Ironically, as it stands, we cannot even tell whether the Sunlight Foundation’s list of donors, as posted on its Web site, is complete and accurate. We can, however, see that big contributions from Google — as well as the biases of board members who have benefited greatly from Google’s largesse — have induced it to favor Google’s corporate agenda (“net neutrality”), and to attack opponents of it, while soft-pedaling anything that might reflect badly on Google. In particular, an earlier report claimed that the telecomm companies outspent Google, but cited only reportable lobbying expenses and ignored its even larger expenditures on astroturf.

  • I have no idea how anyone could get a pro-net neutrality bias out of a post that is highlighting the revolving door between government and Google/Microsoft.

    Nor do I see how this implicitly supports the holding of closed door meetings.

    In fact, I’m kind of lost at how a completely straight piece with no opinion in it can be viewed that way.

    The post also disclosed that Kim Scott is on our board. What I did not know at the time of making that disclosure was that Scott no longer worked for Google. I don’t think anyone here had much of an idea about that, which goes to show how much influence that has over our writing.

    In the case, of Lessig, you probably didn’t read his article in the New Republic a while ago that criticized the transparency community, including Sunlight.

    For the commenters who continue to harp about astroturf groups, I would be interested to know if you think that grassroots lobbying should be required to be transparent. I’m not being flip, just genuinely interested if you think that groups like the ones you have pointed out and others should be required to disclose their donors and their activities. Also, do you support the DISCLOSE Act to require corporations and unions to disclose big donors when running electoral campaigns?

  • Brett Glass

    Lessig’s career has also been advanced (and his salary paid) by large contributions from Google to the institutions where he has worked. And Yochai Benkler works for Harvard’s Berkman Center, which counts Google among its largest supporters (more than Harvard itself!).

    Methinks it’s time for someone to shed some sunlight on the “Sunlight Foundation.” Is its purpose really to shed sunlight on government activities (such as the closed-door meetings of which it tacitly approves above and in which Google was involved) or to advance the interests of its corporate benefactors by attempting to embarrass their adversaries?

  • Gary

    Geez… Interesting that Google’s Kim Scott is on your board. More interesting that you have Larry Lessig, a professor of ethics who has taken millions from shady offshore trusts to lobby for online gambling.

    So much for sunlight I suppose

  • Phil

    This is an interesting post, but I’m struggling to see how it relates to the Sunlight Foundation. There seems to be a tacit approval here of these closed door meetings that conflicts with the Foundation’s mission “to make government transparent and accountable.” Am I wrong?

    The apparent pro-net neutrality bias in this post and others also does not appear to fit the Foundation’s mission of merely wanting transparency and accountability. So, how exactly does net neutrality fit into the Foundation’s objectives?

  • Brett Glass

    What this article SHOULD mention is that the Sunlight Foundation has close ties to Google. Perhaps this is why the group is trying to perpetuate the falsehood that Google is spending less than the large telecomm companies in DC. In fact, it is spending more than any of them. However, it’s not spending the money on registered lobbyists, but rather on “astroturf” groups — groups which claim that they independently represent the “public interest” but in fact get money from Google to lobby for Google’s interests. These include Public Knowledge, Free Press, the New America Foundation, Media Access Project, and the Future of Music Coalition. The “Sunlight Foundation” is failing to shed any sunlight on these expenditures. Coincidence? I think not.

  • FWIW — Microsoft lobbyists spend little to none of their time lobbying for Net Neutrality. Their work in DC is largely devoted to policies on patent reform, software piracy, cybersecurity, competition in online advertising and international trade visas for foreign workers.

    http://blog.taragana.com/index.php/archive/microsoft-spent-17-million-in-1st-quarter-to-lobby-on-health-care-technology-other-issues/

    They have been largely absent from discussions about Net Neutrality policy among the many groups who advocate for an open Internet.

  • Elaine

    So much for curbing the influence of lobbyist’s.

    We all know it’s just smoke and mirrors, game playing, and hot air.

    The American people have been hoodwinked, lied to, manipulated, brainwashed, and indoctrinated so well by government and the liberal media into believing they actually have any influence in what their government does that it’s difficult to imagine we have a future where our Constitution and it’s protected freedoms will exist.