Public Knowledge – Protecting the “Public Interest” or Promoting Profitable Self-Interest?

by Mike Wendy on December 13, 2011

The other day, anti-property group, Public Knowledge, announced the addition of three new board members.   Two of them are ex-Obama officials – Andrew McLaughlin and Kevin Werbach – who, along with another PK board member, Susan Crawford, played leading roles in helping the administration / FCC craft its needless and likely illegal Net Neutrality regulations.

McLaughlin is also an ex-Googler, now newly working at Tumblr, landing there after resigning from the Obama administration under an ethics cloud surrounding the creation of the aforementioned Net Neutrality regs.  Werbach is currently a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The third new board member is most interesting to me, however – Maura Colleton Corbett.  A long-time Washington insider – having worked for MCI in the Enron years, among other positions – she now runs a public affairs shop which represents telecom and IT clients, and also organizes coalitions (like this one) seemingly bent on kneecapping the two remaining Bell Companies (having Sprint as a client), as well as anything that stands in the way of Google’s rise and dominance (Google also being a client).  This 1%-er has reached that echelon by doing one thing very well – finding, defining and then mining for profit “public interest” “controversy” as its relates to the information and communications technology sector.

Corbett moderating "public interest" event on Capitol Hill for Google, September 2008

Corbett ‘s selection – and, to a lesser extent, McLaughlin’s – are somewhat troubling…that is, if you believe that “public interest” groups like PK are acting for purely altruistic purposes.

For the rest of us non-prudes, PK’s new board members reveal what we have long thought about groups like theirs – it’s no better than a corporate shill.

Of course, for those who cover PK, one must ask: With board members like Corbett and McLaughlin, how could anyone tell if what PK pushes is in fact a real “public interest” concern, or something manufactured to help Corbett’s clients, or create the best possible policy climate for Tumblr, Sprint and Google?

In other words, that the concern is actually real and important to the “public interest,” and not some sweet butter spread to hide the attainment of what is actually some number on a corporation’s bottom line.

Never letting a good sales opportunity languish, Google's Larry Page at Corbett's "public interest" event, pitching his new Android phone

Corbett and McLaughlin stand to get something as a result of PK’s policy work.  And it isn’t a “spiritual bouquet.”  PK’s recent positions all support core aspects of Corbett’s and McLaughlin’s company interests (as in here, here and here).  That ain’t by accident.

And PK, too, will reap the benefits of having them on as board members.  It could be new corporate or foundation revenue in these tight times.  Or, increased access to public officials. Or, strategic guidance.  Whatever it is, they’re there for PK gain, also – not to hold a party.

It’s all a big, profitable game for PK and company.  But, that doesn’t sound like working to protect the “public interest” to me.   That sounds like a confidence game designed to scam the “public interest” instead.

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