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There was a good bit of fun yesterday when Public Knowledge made public the delivery list for AT&T’s Christmas cheer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). AT&T went through the building distributing 127 dozen cupcakes (1,524 for those keeping score) worth $3,700 (lunch money for AT&T) to FCC employees in 63 separate offices and departments.
For those not in the Washington area, Georgetown Cupcakes is one of the primo brands. There are lines out of the door at their stores, and a reality show on TLC for Katherine Kallinis and Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne, the sisters who started the company.
Some reporters were underwhelmed by the disclosure, saying that AT&T does it every year, and that some reporters get cupcakes too. Other reporters saw the humor in the situation, picked up the brief item and the story soon spread. Of course, a hashtag, #cupcakegate, popped up on Twitter. (And the Google Washington office got some cupcakes too.)
AT&T Senior VP Robert Quinn took to his blog, presumably tongue in cheek, to say that even though, “it’s a time to make merry,” he observed that Public Knowledge had, “inexplicably” adopted “an anti-cupcake agenda.” Perhaps, he said, “Public Knowledge is just upset that we didn’t send any to them. Well consider it done. They’re on the way.”
Public Knowledge did get some cupcakes, and they were delicious (although there was considerable discussion whether they were better than Hello Cupcakes of Dupont Circle). But as with any telecom issue, nothing is simple and there is more to it than meets the eye.
Public Knowledge got the AT&T delivery list because someone was outraged at the sight of AT&T having total access to the staff of the FCC, even if was only to deliver cupcakes with AT&T logos on them, on the day after the public debate closed on the crucial Net Neutrality item. AT&T, after all, is a regulated company that has billions of dollars at interest at the FCC.
No one is intimating that a mere cupcake can influence the decisions of FCC officials. As former Commissioner (and interim chairman) James Quello once said, “If you can't eat their food and drink their booze and still vote against them, you shouldn't have this job.”
The problem is the easy familiarity AT&T nourishes at the FCC – continually reinforcing that they are simply another part of the FCC family bringing cheer throughout the agency for the sheer, nonthreatening seasonal joy of it, ulterior motives not included. This is not an “anti-cupcake agenda.” We agree with the FCC spokeswoman who told Amy Schatz at the Wall Street Journal, “We’re pro-open Internet and pro-cupcake,” although we might differ on the details of each.
It’s more that there are a few questions, which deserve to be discussed. Why does AT&T want to spend all that money on cupcakes? What they really think they get out of it? Is it appropriate to do so? And what is the effect on other companies which also want to do business at the Commission but don’t have the time, energy or resources to sweeten their advocacy as AT&T does?