IN THE FACE of widespread opposition, the Federal Communications Commission rolled back net neutrality protections that prevented internet service providers from charging websites for faster download speeds. The vote fell along party lines. But one Democrat, Barack Obama’s former Federal Trade Commission chief Jon Leibowitz, dismissed net neutrality repeal as no big deal in the pages of the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. He celebrated that the FTC would get restored authority to aggressively police the internet for anti-competitive or unfair conduct.
The op-ed contained an unusual disclaimer:
Mr. Leibowitz was a Democratic commissioner at the FTC from 2004-13 and chairman beginning in 2009. As a partner at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, he represents both technology companies and broadband providers.
The reference to both industries reads as an effort to be upfront about any potential conflict of interest, but also to suggest that Leibowitz has clients on both sides of the issue, so his argument is dispassionate. Tech companies, historically, support net neutrality, while broadband providers oppose it.
But it’s not entirely clear what “technology companies” Leibowitz himself represents. When asked, he directed The Intercept to the Davis Polk website, which lists a fair number of tech companies for which the corporate law firm has done business.
However, we do know Leibowitz’s primary broadband client: Comcast, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the net neutrality repeal.
On his bio page, Leibowitz discloses that he has “advised Comcast Corporation in connection with a number of regulatory matters and acquisitions.” More broadly, Davis Polk was a key adviser in Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, as well as deals with DreamWorks and Time Warner Cable (which didn’t end up being approved). Comcast “has used the New York-based law firm repeatedly,” according to Reuters. NBCUniversal’s general counsel came from Davis Polk.
So a Comcast lawyer used the Wall Street Journal to give an “unbiased” opinion on why the net neutrality repeal represented no threat to consumers. The opinion meshed seamlessly with Comcast’s own published endorsements of the FCC’s action.
Senior Comcast executive David Cohen wrote yesterday, “We have repeatedly stated, and reiterate today, that we do not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.” Leibowitz, in the op-ed, stated: “Every major broadband provider has committed not to block, throttle or unfairly discriminate against lawful content.” Comcast, by the way, is actually required not to discriminate, per a consent decree from the NBC merger that expires next year.
“The order returns authority to the FTC to regulate data privacy and security for the entire Internet ecosystem under a uniform federal technology-neutral framework,” wrote Cohen. Leibowitz wrote, “The plan to restore FTC jurisdiction is good for consumers because it puts the nation’s foremost privacy cop back on the beat.”