Documents show ‘Free Press’ interest group leveraged ties to Google, Obama administration

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The lobby group Free Press, a self-styled “public interest” organization, has worked hard over the years to forge alliances with corporate players and federal bureaucrats directly involved in the political intrigues of DC technology and media policy.

Documents made public through past Freedom of Information Act requests and those obtained by The Daily Caller through an undisclosed source reveal a well-funded, ideologically motivated organization with close ties to Google, the White House, and several federal agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the State Department.

The regulatory policies Free Press advocates, including net neutrality, benefit the organization’s corporate allies, in addition to the investment portfolios of philanthropists including the group’s most well-known financier, George Soros.

The net neutrality debate was largely one about how to best solve the dilemma of meeting continually increasing consumer demand for the data-intensive services of corporations like Google and Facebook. That growing demand for online bandwidth developed in parallel with the communications technology industry’s own problem: the ever-decreasing supply of available electromagnetic spectrum to license to Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Sprint.

The ideological rhetoric of political players on both sides of the debate, however, seemed to force consumers and bureaucrats to choose between free speech and free markets.

John Fund, the senior editor of the conservative American Spectator, explained in a 2010 Wall Street Journal column that the concept of net neutrality was birthed as part of a well-funded and intentional effort by a network of liberal foundations, and that Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney’s “ultimate goal” — as stated in a 2009 interview on the Canadian socialist website SocialistProject — was to “get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

The policy coordination between McChesney’s group and Google can physically be traced back as early as March 2009. Free Press co-founder and former president Josh Silver had sent out a memo, obtained by TheDC, an invitation to the home of Google General Counsel David Drummond — which advertised a reception where attendees would discuss all things related to the Internet policy of the new Obama Administration:

“David Drummond is hosting a small reception at his home in San Francisco on March 25th, and I hope you will join us,” wrote Silver, who is still a current board member of Free Press, as well as the current CEO of the campaign finance reform organization United Republic. (RELATED: Full coverage of the tech world)

“We will discuss how the new Administration will be driving major policy changes that will shape opportunities for, access to markets, and the quality of network infrastructure,” wrote Silver. “We’ll touch on universal broadband access, Net Neutrality, privacy, wireless spectrum allocation, and openness standards.”

“David has graciously invited me and our Policy Director Ben Scott to speak with a small group of individuals who share an interest in these issues,” wrote Silver. “Joining us will be Free Press board member Larry Lessig who is Professor at Stanford Law School and Founder and Director of the school’s Center for Internet and Society.”

In an email to TheDC, Lessig denied any knowledge of the event or the invitation.

“I’m sorry but I don’t know anything about this meeting,” said Lessig. “I am not with Free Press. And I have never been at David’s home (unfortunately).”

Lessig’s own biography confirms his previous service as a board member of Free Press. Asked in a followup about the invitation, Lessig wrote: “I never got that memo! But no, never asked, never there.”

Lessig’s recollections could not be corroborated, since neither Scott nor Silver responded to requests for comment for this story.

The meeting at Drummond’s home does not appear to have been the last time Free Press and Google collaborated. Free Press’ policy positions in net neutrality regulatory skirmishes favored outcomes advantageous to Google’s business model, and the organization worked — as did lobbyists representing all sides of the debate — with people inside the administration to win those battles.

In several instances during 2010, Free Press had close — and apparently inappropriate — contact with a former Google employee who worked in the White House, and with FCC officials, over the formation of broadband and net neutrality policy.

Emails obtained by the National Legal and Policy Center through a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Ben Scott had met with now former Obama White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin at a Washington tea house to discuss and compare notes about broadband Internet policy and Net Neutrality. Scott, whom the Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang had at one point called a “driving force” for net neutrality, sent a follow-up email to McLaughlin after that meeting to provide him with non-public Free Press documents covering the issues they discussed.

McLaughlin, policy advisor at Google prior to taking a job at the White House, had already come under fire from members of Congress, including the House oversight committee’s then-ranking member Darrell Issa, for using his personal Gmail and government email accounts to coordinate with senior employees at Google while he was at the White House. McLaughlin, who did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment, was criticized for using his position to give favor to his former employer — a violation of the President’s Ethics pledge.

The White House defended McLaughlin in a Los Angeles Times article, noting 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.”

The close relationship between Google and the White House was no secret at the time. Obama’s relationship with Silicon Valley in particular was important to his government technology policy initiatives, and also to his pledge to making government more “transparent and open.”

“Google’s ties to the Obama White House are no secret,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Free Press’ lobbying did not stop at the White House, but extended also to the FCC. Emails obtained by Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request showed communications between now-former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and Free Press, including an ex-parte document sent by now-former Free Press president Josh Silver in the days leading up the the December 21, 2010 vote by the FCC.

Scott also communicated frequently with FCC officials. Former Free Press spokesperson Jen Howard was FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s press secretary at the time. the Washington political newspaper The Hill reported that Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn condemned what she saw as “collusion” between the FCC and the lobby group, as revealed in the emails Judicial Watch obtained.

The Daily Caller reported on Feb. 21 that several meetings on Genachowski’s books, including one with former Free Press chairman Tim Wu, went undocumented in the Commission’s legal filings. Wu, now a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission — which, ironically, is investigating Google for alleged antitrust violations — told TheDC that the meeting never happened.

The FCC, as the arbiter of the debate, compromised in ways criticized by parties on all sides of the “net neutrality” debate.

Republicans in Congress contended that the FCC lacked the legal authority to regulate the Internet, which was the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. earlier that year during a different round of the net neutrality battles. Verizon later sued the FCC on the grounds that its decision was unconstitutional.

Democrats in Congress and their activist allies argued that the FCC had all the legal authority it needed. Free Press, meanwhile, sued the FCC on the grounds that its decision did not go far enough to protect the free speech of consumers from the “threat” of corporate interests.

The public tone the group takes towards industry and the Administration, however, is often harsh and critical. Free Press strategy director Timothy Karr called the FCC’s December 2010 net neutrality decision a “betrayal” by Genachowski and Obama on previous pledges to “protect the free and open Internet.”

Karr recently condemned Obama’s clarion call in early February for supporters to donate to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action as a “signal” to Genachowski that the “backdoor money and media game is now business as usual.”

When asked about what Free Press critics perceive as the group’s own “backdoor” politics, however, Karr told The Daily Caller in an emailed response that his organization’s “access to power pales in comparison” to that of corporate media giants, such as “AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Viacom, Disney, News Corporation and other communications giants.”

“There’s a stunning degree of intellectual dishonesty to any suggestion that the normal work of a not-for-profit public advocacy organization is the moral equivalent of shadowy Super PACs and ‘independent groups’ that are now plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns and ballot issues,” Karr wrote.

“Like other public interest not-for-profits with operations in Washington,” he added, Free Press regularly meets with members of Congress, their staff, and the staff at federal agencies.”

The regulatory policy agenda Free Press supports, and the political alliances it forges among Washington insiders, are considered by the group’s critics to be extensions of Robert McChesney’s intellectual foundations.

John Fund had argued in the Wall Street Journal that the group’s methods were similar to campaign finance reform efforts of the “activists behind the political speech restrictions of the 2002 McCain–Feingold campaign-finance reform bill.”

“The methods of that earlier campaign were discussed in 2004 by Sean Treglia, a former program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, during a talk at the University of Southern California. Far from being the efforts of genuine grass-roots activists, Mr. Treglia noted, the campaign-finance reform lobby was controlled and funded by foundations like Pew,” wrote Fund.

“‘The idea was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot,’ Treglia told his audience. ‘If Congress thought this was a Pew effort, it’d be worthless.'”

In November 2011, Free Press responded to a written request from Rep. Blackburn for information about its top donors. Blackburn’s first missive had gone unanswered for eight months; it was her second notice that brought a response.

The names Free Press delivered included the C. Edwin Baker Trust 2001, an unnamed “Democracy Alliance Partner” (described as a “private foundation”), the Ford Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Leland Fikes Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Sandler Foundation, the Woodcock Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.

“As you know, Free Press and Free Press Action Fund do not accept gifts from the government, political parties or businesses,” Free Press research director S. Derek Turner wrote to Blackburn. “Both organizations do not accept gifts from the government, political parties or businesses. Both organizations are supported by individuals, private foundations, and public charities.”

“In 2010, Free Press received 164 contributions totaling $4,291,484, an average donation of $19,685. In 2010 Free Press Action Fund received 7,249 contributions totaling $432,499, an average donation of $59.66.”

Turner’s also described the conditions under which Free Press was disclosing its top donors’ names.

“In order to be responsive to your specific request,” he wrote, “this list includes the names of some donors who, as is their right and privilege, require specific approval prior to Free Press’ publication of their names. One donor chose to exercise its right to privacy.”

The anonymity of that one donor left open the question of Google’s possible financial involvement through its philanthropic foundation. Turner also did not disclose whether Soros contributed financial support.

Publicly available IRS tax returns indicate that the last time a Soros-led foundation gave money to Free Press was in 2009 — a $175,000 grant from the Foundation to Promote an Open Society. Soros’ Open Society Institute also contributed $450,000 in 2008.

The largest donation on record was from the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, a non-Soros foundation historically led by PBS broadcast Bill Moyers and his son. In 2006 it contributed $1.6 million.

Free Press’ largest donation in 2010 was $750,000 from the Ford Foundation, another progressive philanthropy not connected to the Soros empire.

Several Free Press donors, including the Ford Foundation, have also contributed to the Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where Andrew McLaughlin was a fellow. The FCC commissioned the Berkman Center in 2009 to research the nation’s broadband Internet needs.

Investment tracking site GuruFocus reported that Soros, who it said has been “trading shares of Google since prior to 2007,” had completely liquidated his Google holdings in the second quarter of 2011, only to dramatically increase his stake in the company later that year.

“He then bought 1,126 shares in the third quarter of 2011 at about $550 per share,” wrote GuruFocus. “In the fourth quarter, he bought his largest stake to date — 258,900 shares at about $592, for a total investment of $154 million. Google is now his fifth largest holding, with 7.3% of his portfolio.”

The Republican-led House of Representatives voted to overturn the FCC’s “net neutrality” rules in April 2011, a measure blocked by the Democratic majority in the Senate later that year, in November.

Soros spokesman and right-hand man Michael Vachon, in an email to The Daily Caller, dismissed the idea of connections between Soros’ investment portfolio and his philanthropic giving through his Open Society Foundations to political organizations like Free Press.

Vachon is also Soros’ political director, and as both spokesman and the chairman’s advisor at Soros Fund Management.

Vachon sits on the board of the Democracy Alliance as well.

“Mr. Soros exerts no control whatsoever over Free Press,” Vachon told TheDC. “OSF [Open Society Foundations] funding for Free Press is unrelated to Mr Soros’ investment activity.”

Vachon emphasized to TheDC that Soros’ investment stake in Google does not give him any influence in the company.

Free Press was also among several progressive activist groups that signed a letter petitioning the FCC to actively intervene on behalf of LightSquared — another recipient of Soros’ private investment dollars. Like Free Press, these same activist groups are recipients of philanthropic donations from Soros and enjoy close relationships with Google.

The Huffington Post reported Tuesday that the Democracy Alliance recently dropped a number of prominent progressive organizations from its ranks, including Free Press.

Google declined The Daily Caller’s request for comment about details in this story.

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