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 Policy.
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 inappropriate."
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 interview.
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 school.
"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 paycheck.
"[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.