Revolving Door Undermines FCC’s Watchdog Role

from the network-neutrality dept

In previous installments of my series on network neutrality, I've pointed out that the end-to-end principle is not as fragile as a lot of people assume. Technological platforms have a kind of momentum that make them hard to change once they've become established, and so it's not at all obvious that major broadband providers have the ability to significantly change the Internet's architecture. In my view, this is one reason to be skeptical of making the FCC the nation's network neutrality cop.

Here's a good example of another reason for skepticism: Catherine Bohigian, chief of the office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission, stepped down effective September 5. Her next job will be with cable giant Cablevision. According to the Washington Post, Bohigian has worked closely with chairman Kevin Martin throughout his tenure. And before her tour of duty at the FCC, Bohigian—like Martin—worked at Wiley, Rein & Fielding, a private law firm specializing in communications law. In other words, Bohigian first worked at a law firm that regularly appears before the FCC, then she became one of the key decision-makers at the FCC, and now she's going to be working for a company that regularly appears before the FCC. It's reasonable to assume that she'll be using her intimate knowledge of the regulatory process—and, perhaps, her close ties to other FCC staffers—to gain regulatory advantages for her employer.

Now, this isn't illegal. It's not even unusual. But this kind of low-grade corruption does give us a window into how the regulatory process works.

Theoretically, the FCC is supposed to be a neutral agency that enforces the law in the public interest. In practice, the revolving door between the commission, major telecom companies, and the high-priced law firms that represent those companies means that the people who staff the agency and the people who lobby the agency are largely the same people at different points in their careers. In the next few years, if Cablevision wants to make sure that a particular FCC decision comes out in a way that promotes their interests, they won't just be able to make their arguments via the formal legal process. They'll also be able to dispatch Bohigian to have lunch with key FCC staffers—many of whom will be her friends, and possibly her former employees—to personally plead Cablevision's case. And of course, many of those staffers will be thinking about what their next gig will be, and it will be obvious that their chances at getting a cushy job at a major telco or cable company will be enhanced if they're helpful to those companies while they're still with the Commission.

You could mitigate this somewhat with stricter lobbying rules. For example, Congress imposes a one-year time limit on Hill staffers lobbying their former colleagues after they take jobs in the private sector. Maybe the FCC should beef up its own conflict-of-interest rules. But shutting down the revolving door completely would be extremely difficult. The regulations the FCC enforces are complicated, and the FCC needs a pool of people with in-depth understanding of those rules in order to do its job. But for people with expertise in the areas of law the FCC administers, the only other use for those skills is representing clients before the FCC. A ban on former FCC staffers working for telecom firms or the law firms that represent them would make it extremely difficult for the FCC to recruit talent, because working at the FCC would essentially be a dead-end job. Once somebody had taken a job at the Commission and developed expertise in telecom law, she'd have no real options for using those skills.

Which means that when we're debating new regulations of the telecom industry, we have to remember that the rules will be enforced by an agency that has close ties to incumbent telco interests. If Congress passes network neutrality regulations, those regulations will be interpreted and enforced by an agency whose key staffers have close ties to the major telephone and cable incumbents. Which means that the results are likely to be more incumbent-friendly—and less consumer-friendly—than network neutrality advocates expect. If Cablevision gets in hot water for a network neutrality problem, they'll be able to dispatch Bohigian and others on their payroll to make sure the company doesn't get more than a slap on the wrist. And, as I'll explain in the next installment, not only can this sort of lobbying render regulations toothless, but in some cases it can actually make things worse by allowing incumbents to tie their competitors up in red tape.

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