Net neutrality advocates rejoiced when President-elect Barack Obama announced in November 2008 that University of Pennsylvania professor Kevin Werbach, along with Michigan law professor Susan Crawford, would facilitate the transition at the Federal Communications Commission. A Harvard Law grad, Werbach worked in the FCC’s new technology division for four years under former President Bill Clinton. In 1997, he was one of the first people to discuss policies for regulating the Internet. And during most of President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, Werbach criticized the administration’s reluctance to “reform” broadband.
After watching from the sidelines as broadband policy sat on the backburner, Werbach was considered imminently qualified to lay the policy groundwork for a newly progressive FCC under Obama. Under his advisement, Obama appointed Julius Genachowski, a net neutrality advocate, chairman of the FCC, and made broadband reform — rather than decency on the airwaves — the center of the FCC’s attention.
Since leaving the temporary transition gig, however, Werbach has continued to act as a paid consultant to the FCC on broadband and net neutrality policy. This presents something of an ethical quandary. Supernova, the tech innovation company that Werbach founded and runs, is privately funded by the very same corporations that the FCC could one day regulate if Congress ever paves the way for net neutrality regulations.
Does this mean Werbach is bypassing the revolving door to slip in through the kitchen?
“I still have an open engagement with the FCC as a Special Government Employee, which I disclose whenever I engage in any public speaking or commentary on related issues,” Werbach told The Daily Caller in an email. “However, I have not done any paid work for them in recent months. I do work there on a project basis, and they pay me only when I put in time.”
Werbach’s annual Supernova conference took place just last week in Philadelphia, and was sponsored by Google and Comcast. To say that the two companies are heavily invested in influencing FCC policy would be a gross understatement: Google spent $2.72 million in the first half of this year lobbying for net neutrality; Comcast spent $3.8 million during the same period lobbying against net neutrality.
Werbach points to this confluence of interests as evidence that there is no impropriety in his current arrangement with the FCC. “Supernova has had dozens of sponsors over the past 9 years. Some have interests in FCC issues, some don’t — e.g. American Express and MailChimp this year have no vested interest in net neutrality,” Werbach wrote. “The ones that do take different sides, such as the companies you mentioned [Google and Comcast].”
During the two-day conference, Google and Comcast received equal chances to pedal their positions on net neutrality. A policy discussion titled “The Broadband Challenge,” featured Google legal counsel Rick Whitt, Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld (a pro net neutrality nonprofit that counts Werbach among its board members) and John Leibovitz from the FCC. In the panel’s minority were telecom representatives from lobbying group US Telecom and investment company Stifel Nicolaus. A talk sponsored by AT&T and Google called “Governance and Self-Governance in a Broadband World,” gave industry folks a chance to frame the debate in their terms, and an evenly split panel composed of Dorothy Attwood (AT&T), Paul De Sa (FCC), Jerry Lewis (Comcast), Danny Weitzner (NTIA).
But even if an FCC consultant is providing equal time to members of the net neutrality debate, Werbach is still asking them for money in the first place. The Supernova conference doesn’t pay for itself. Werbach defends this, too, via a loophole of his own creation: He doesn’t solicit funds at the same time he’s getting paid by the FCC.
“Companies like Comcast and Google, who disagree about many things, see it as a constructive forum. They are sponsoring a conference to express their views and get visibility for their own perspectives, not to influence mine,” he wrote. “We’ve always disclosed my involvement with the Obama Administration, especially last year, when I was actively working with the federal government. (I actually delayed the conference several months in 2009 so that it was not close to the period when I was serving on the Presidential Transition Team.) As I said, I am not currently doing any paid work for the FCC, nor was I during the sponsor solicitation for Supernova Forum 2010.”
ETHICS TROUBLES FOR DEMOCRATS