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White House Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin Slapped for Gmailing with Googlers

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, May 17 2010

A 2008 photo of Andrew McLaughlin taken by Joi Ito, used under a Creative Commons license.

The controversy that began in March with an accusatory report on the conservative clearinghouse has resulted in an official reprimand for Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, according to records and an internal memo obtained by techPresident this weekend.

McLaughlin was cited for two kinds of actions: using a personal email account for some professional email exchanges and for violating restrictions on contacts with Google, his former employer. Most notable among the latter were a pair of conversations with the Director of U.S. Public Policy for Google about mobilizing Google's resources to respond to negative press mentions. Those breaches, according to a memo by OSTP Director John Holdren, "implicated" the Federal Records Act and the President's Ethics Pledge signed by McLaughlin upon his employment as an Obama administration point person on innovation and Internet policy, within the White House Office of Technology and Science Policy.*

But those people looking for evidence of McLaughlin's wide-ranging network of Google contacts with influence over public policy -- an investigation launched by Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, hinted of contacts with "more than two dozen individuals currently employed by Google, Inc., including a number of senior lobbyists and lawyers" -- are likely going to be disappointed.

The email cache produced as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the group Consumer Watchdog shows few contacts between McLaughlin and other Googlers, beyond extensive contact with one Google executive who also serves in a federal advisory role. In many cases, McLaughlin, the former Director of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google, either ignores the emails from his former colleagues, or responds by recusing himself from the conversation. Nowhere does McLaughlin offer Google privileged treatment.

"[O]ne of our employees recently fell short," wrote White House OSTP Director John Holdren in an internal memo sent to staff. Holdren described the breaches as "inadvertent." Rick Weiss, OSTP's Director of Strategic Communications, issued a statement to techPresident noting that McLaughlin's wrists had been slapped, saying "OSTP reprimanded Andrew for these lapses and counseled him on his ethics obligations. Andrew regrets these violations and has taken steps to ensure they do not occur again."

(McLaughlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

McLaughlin undeniably practiced poor email hygiene, sometimes sending and receiving emails using his personal Gmail account where he should have used his official Executive Office of the President address. That's a distinction with a significant difference, of course, because of the mechanisms put in place to archive emails that pass through the White House e-mail system, something that has come into focus with the Bush White House's email controversy involving Karl Rove, non-official email addresses, and the firing of U.S. attorneys.

The McLaughlin email records were produced as a result of an April 1st Freedom of Information Act request from John M. Simpson, an advocate and activist with the group Consumer Watchdog. Simpson asked OSTP for all electronic mail between McLaughlin and officers and employees of Google Inc., as well as its contracted lobbyists. Simpson latter clarified his request to name eight lobbying firms known to represented Google in its Washington dealings.

In response to the Simpson FOIA request, OSTP produced about 120 emails, making up about 50 discrete email conversations and covering about 10 months of McLaughlin's tenure in the White House's science office. Both McLaughlin's Gmail and Executive Office of the President email addresses are in the mix, though, on May 6th, with the FOIA request pending, McLaughlin forwarded the emails that involved his personal account to his official address, thus retroactively archiving them in the White House email system.

In that cache, there are no emails between him and Google CEO (and Washington habitué) Eric Schmidt. Nor are there any emails between McLaughlin and Google founders Larry Page or Sergey Brin. In fact,McLaughlin's email engagement with Googlers is limited to a handful of contacts. But some of the exchanges, particularly those between McLaughlin and Google's Director of U.S. Public Policy Alan Davidson, produce red flags.

Consumer Watchdog has had Google in its sights, and have stepped up their efforts recently with a campaign called Inside Google that goes after the corporation for its supposed "dangerous dominance over the Internet, computing and our online lives."

And from the start, Consumer Watchdog was against McLaughlin's appointment to the Obama administration. In June of last year, Simpson and the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeffrey A. Chester wrote Obama, charging that McLaughlin's appointment ran counter to the President's words. "Given...your commitment to a new standard for ethics in government, it would be a mistake to put Google's top policy person in a key leadership position with critical technology decisions for the federal government." On his first full day in office, President Obama issued an ethics pledge concerning contacts between his employees and their former employers. He warned incoming staff, "If you are enlisting in government service, you will have to commit in writing to rules limiting your role for two years in matters involving people you used to work with." The new, more aggressive restrictions, said Obama, were aimed at making it so that "our government is serving the people's interests, and nobody else's."

The ethics pledge signed by Executive Branch employees reads, in relevant part, "I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts."

About three-fifths of the McLaughlin email conversations produced at Consumer Watchdog's request involve conversations with Vint Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist who is often honored with the sobriquet "Father of the Internet" for his work in developing the Internet's core standards. But Cerf also happens to wear another hat. Until recently, the 66 year old also served as Chair (and is now Vice Chair) of a federal advisory committee, the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technologies at the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, better known as NIST.

McLaughlin and Cerf were frequent email contacts, though often with Cerf's missives going unresponded. But, in the Holdren memo, the White House OSTP contends that those exchanges don't violate the ethics pledge signed by McLaughlin because of Cerf's second hat as a government advisor. Email discussions about everything from the internal politics of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) on which both Cerf and McLaughlin once served to the adoption of Internet Protocol version 6 to getting fuel for a Haitian network access point at Boutilier in the post-earthquake scramble are, says the White House, unconcerning because Cerf was acting in his "official capacity as a member of a Federal Advisory Committee."

Also covered by the advisor-exemption, says the White House, is an exchange where Cerf asks McLaughlin whether the Obama White House is shying away from its commitment to net neutrality. "Don’t be silly," responded McLaughlin. "No one’s backing away from anything.”

And often, McLaughlin seems well aware that his contacts with his non-Cerf former colleagues at Google are to be avoided. An invitation to an cocktail event at Google headquarters in DC gets this response from the Deputy CTO: "Thanks for the kind invite, Manuel. I keep a very strict line between myself and Google (and Googlers)." A request for intervention in a Google Earth dispute over the boundaries between Cambodia and Thailand produces this: "Norbert, in my current position, I'm recused from anything having to do with Google, so I'll leave it to you and Vint to sort this out. :)" A request from a Google staffer to meet to discuss Asia policy resulted in this response: "Thanks, but I recuse myself from anything Google-specific, on account of past employment." Several other emails from Googlers on topics like copyright treaties and Google's fiber-to-the-home experiment go ignored.

Restricting the White House point person on Internet innovation from working with Google does produce a fairly large lacuna at the heart of McLaughlin's portfolio. In one February thread, for example, the Harvard Law grad pings an entrepreneurial friend about whether he might know of any innovators out there who might be able to extract meaning from "a massive sea of raw footage" on behalf of the White House. When his correspondent pulls into the conversation Hunter Walk, Director of Product Management at YouTube (a Google property), McLaughlin drops off the thread.

But two emails in particular jump out of the bunch, and are the ones causing the most trouble for McLaughlin. Both involve exchanges between McLaughlin and Alan Davidson, the Director of U.S. Public Policy for Google. Both involve negative press accounts.

McLaughlin sparked the first concerning exchange in November when, at a conference, he commented about online filtering and restrictions, saying "If it bothers you that the Chinese government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it." AT&T, for one, was not amused. "Incoming," Davidson emailed McLaughlin's Gmail account, linking to a Washington Post report. Davidson reported on his efforts to organize a defense of McLaughlin's comments. "We've tee'd it up for the OIC gang," he wrote, referencing the Open Internet Coalition, of which Google is one of the bigger-name members, "so some of those folks will have your back."

McLaughlin wrote back, noting to Davidson that what he said in regards to China was was similar in spirit to what Candidate Obama said about net neutrality. Davidson wrote back the next day: "Update on this -- haven't seen anything run yet. We and a few OIC folks talked with reporters. It's possible that killed it, which is probably driving [Senior Executive Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T James] Cicconi crazy. :)"

The second exchange, noted by the White House as a violation of the President's Ethics Pledge, was prompted, ironically enough, by the Big Government report in March about McLaughlin's Google Buzz contacts. Using his Gmail account, McLaughlin emailed a link to the Big Government post to Davidson and Bob Boorstin, Google's Director of Corporate and Policy Communications. "Ugh," Davidson wrote back, widening the circle by looping in Google Managing Policy Counsel Pablo Chavez. "Our press people are on it, if you can think of anything that would help please let us know." Davidson went on. "If it makes you feel better you are rapidly becoming the poster child for better product development processes at Google." McLaughlin responded by saying that it would be helpful for the company to point out, accurately, that Buzz contacts don't actually reflect the user's most emailed contacts.

McLaughlin's take on Big Government's focus on his Google Buzz contacts? "Grump. Worse, I don't even communicate with you people!"

OSTP's Weiss admits that McLaughlin's conversations with Davidson were inappropriate, but describes them as "incidental" and "ha[ving] no influence on policy decisions within the Federal government."

*Update for clarity and to better reflect the content of the Holdren memo.