Two nonprofit groups are protesting the Obama administration’s pending appointment of Andrew McLaughlin to the post of U.S. deputy chief technology officer. McLaughlin’s background as director of Google’s global public policy constitutes a major conflict of interest with the government role he would be assuming, the groups contend.
In a joint letter to President Obama, John M. Simpson, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, and Jeffery A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, cite McLaughlin’s years as a Google advocate, especially his position with its political action committee, as the basis for their objection.
They are not reacting to the fact that he comes from the private sector — or for that matter, from one of the largest companies in the private sector, Chester told the E-Commerce Times.
Rather, it is McLaughlin’s lobbying creds that have them up in arms.
“It could be almost anyone else from Google,” Chester said. “That wouldn’t be a problem — but McLaughlin has spearheaded a global lobbying effort to undermine privacy policies and to regulate online advertising. Why would we put such a person in one of the two most powerful positions for tech policy?”
The appointment lays bare the flaws in Obama’s executive order forbidding lobbyists from serving in policy areas in which they lobbied in the past two years, he added.
As recently as March 16, 2009, McLaughlin was listed as assistant treasurer and designated agent of Google’s political action committee NetPAC, Chester pointed out. “The fact is, no top political operative should be allowed to gracefully travel through a golden revolving door, where one day you are lobbying the federal government, and the next day you are overseeing those same issues.”
Obama has run into his fair share of glitches in staffing his cabinet and administration, but this is the first serious one affecting tech policy. So far, Obama has reached into state governments in the DC area to fill his top positions. Indeed, there has been some discontent over the absence of Silicon Valley talent among his picks.
Vivek Kundra, formerly the CTO of Washington, D.C., joined the administration earlier this year as the first federal CIO, a position with far-reaching responsibilities. Kundra has been charged with overseeing tech investments and tech spending in the government.
Obama recently named Aneesh Chopra, the state of Virginia’s secretary of technology, as the chief technology officer of the U.S. It’s not a cabinet-level appointment, but the newly created position is still seen as pivotal to many of the Obama administration’s initiatives. Chopra’s focus will be on streamlining healthcare costs through better deployment of technology and on addressing cybersecurity issues.
Presumably, the U.S. deputy chief technology officer will also play a role in implementing Obama’s technology initiatives.
Good Companies Have Good People
Like all presidents, Obama needs good advisors, and good advisors — if they are coming from the private sector — usually work for good companies, noted Scott Testa, a business professor at St. Joseph’s University.
“At the end of the day, everyone will have some kind of conflict,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “In fact, I would think you would want someone who has worked in the industry, because he or she can give you a good idea of the landscape.”
The argument articulated by Chester and Simpson — that McLaughlin should be barred because he acted as a lobbyist — is irrelevant, Testa maintained.
“Don’t you think that Eric Schmidt would have a similar loyalty to Google or the policy issues that impact it if he had been tapped?” he asked rhetorically.
“I am assuming McLaughlin will divest himself of Google stock and have no connection to the company,” Testa said.
Once those ties are severed, he argued, “there is no reason why he shouldn’t serve.”