Three cases of telecoms Conflict of Interest (CoI): case Berkeley, case FCC and case ICES – the CoI were possibly disclosed but does it mean that CoI were nullified and avoided?
Americans are very conscious about the potential Conflict of Interest. They find it, they point it out and… not always it matters. Currently ongoing presidential election’s political campaign is a very good reminder of the American consciousness about CoI, when we read in news media about the possible business links between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin or the problems of foreign donors for the Clinton Foundation, where Hillary Clinton is involved.
It seems that the Conflict of Interest, not only in USA, is omnipresent – everyone has some of it – but not always it matters…
First, few definitions of the Conflict of Interest (CoI):
- Conflict of interest definition: A situation in which someone who has to make a decision in an official capacity stands to profit personally from the decision. For example, a judge who rules on a case involving a corporation in which he or she owns stock has a conflict of interest.
- In practice of law: judicial disqualification, also referred to as recusal, refers to the act of abstaining from participation in an official action such as a court case/legal proceeding due to a conflict of interest of the presiding court official or administrative officer.
In my lecture in Switzerland in 2015, I quoted extensively CoI as defined by the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academies:
Now, the three examples of the CoI in relation to US telecoms: case Berkeley, case FCC, and case ICES.
- Possible/probable health effects of the radiation emitted by cell phones is a very controversial issue. Some, including telecoms, consider that as long as the safety standards are obeyed (set in USA by ICES) that long health of the user is not affected. Exposure to more radiation than permitted by safety limits is recognized as a health impairing factor and telecoms are aware of it. In brochures accompanying cell phones manufacturers inform that there is a certain distance between the cell phone and the body of the user that needs to be maintained for the health safety. It implies that telecoms know about the health risk problem and they provide appropriate warning. However, this warning is not provided in easily available form but the user needs to “search” for it… buried somewhere in the cell phone manual. Such, buried in manuals’ abyss, warning seems rather to provide “safety” for the telecoms and less for the users who nearly do not read manuals. The “safety” for the telecom if, in the future, cell phone radiation will be clearly demonstrated to cause health problems. Telecoms will be then able to say: we warned users and their health problems are their own fault caused by “improper” use of cell phone.
- And here comes the “double standard”: telecoms can provide warning of potential health risk, buried deep in the manual, but the same warning should not be displayed at the locations where cell phones are sold.
- Berkeley in California introduced ordinance to provide warning to buyers of cell phones that would be clearly visible at the selling points. Telecoms strongly oppose such action and fight it in court… Decision allowing or forbidding to provide warning by cell phone retailers will come soon…
- And here is the Conflict of Interest coming. One of the three judges that will render decision on Berkeley’s ordinance might have Conflict of Interest. Husband of the judge allegedly works for telecom industry and will be providing hardware technology for the deployment of new 5G wireless network.
- This does not, automatically, indicate that the decision of this particular judge will be influenced by husband’s working interests but this is a clear Conflict of Interest, calling for recuse…
- Since 2013 the FCC is led by Mr. Tom Wheeler, who previously was the boss at the CTIA, a lobbying organization for the USA telecoms. In my blog published in the Communities section of the Washington Times (it was “censored” by TWT and removed; leszczynski-wheeling-and-dealing-at-the-fcc) I wrote before the final appointment of Wheeler as FCC boss:
“…Mr. Tom Wheeler, yesterday nominated for the Chairmanship of the FCC, has a clear conflict of interest to deal with, if his appointment is confirmed by the Senate. As the New York Times pointed out “…Once he takes office, Mr. Wheeler, 67, will be under pressure not only to demonstrate that he understands rapidly changing technologies, but also to make clear that his previous work as a top lobbyist for the cellphone and cable television industries will not prejudice his F.C.C. decision-making…”. Among others, Mr. Wheeler was the Chairman of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the cell phone industry trade group…”
- There is nothing secret about Mr. Wheeler’s work for CTIA as telecom lobbyist. It is well known and disclosed. However, how trustworthy are his decisions? In moments of ambiguity, is he taking side of the general public or the telecom? Having CoI does not automatically mean that decisions are influenced by it… but there might be… who knows for sure?
- ICES, equivalent of ICNIRP, prepares safety recommendations for the exposures of users by radiation emitted by cell phones. Unlike ICNIRP, anyone can apply for the membership of ICES and all embers of ICES participate in decision making process. Sounds nice… Not a “private club” as ICNIRP where participation is by invitation only and the invitees have to have the same opinion on radiation safety – this helps in reaching unanimous decisions… But ICES has another problem that caused me, member of ICES for a couple of years, to resign my membership in 2009. The problem is that the ICES membership is clearly dominated by scientists working or consulting for telecoms (see page 20 and onward in: scc39-annual-report-2014-2015).
- In my recent blog posting from the BioEM2016 in Ghent, Belgium, I wrote about ICES:
“…the membership of the IEEE-ICES-TC95 consists predominantly of the industrial scientists and the committee is chaired by C.K. Chou since the time he was employed by the Motorola. This means that all safety standards being developed by IEEE-ICES-TC95 are, in practice, developed by the industry scientists for the use by the industry they are employed by. The industry scientists have the majority on the committee and upper-hand in any process involving democratic voting. To me this is clear CoI. No matter how the procedures are described in the documents governing the work of the IEEE-ICES-TC95 the final decision belongs to the voters, of whom the majority is employed by the industry they regulate. Out of the curiosity, Chairman of the committee SCC39 that supervises work of TC95 is Ralf Bodemann of Siemens… While the IEEE has the excellent expertise in the area of telecom technology, the Conflict of Interest remains an unresolved issue that undermines, in my opinion, reliability of the IEEE safety standards.…”
- So, again, similarly to FCC/Wheeler, the ICES membership is disclosed up front but the Conflict of Interest remains because, again, in moments of ambiguity, are ICES members taking side of the general public or the telecom? Having CoI does not automatically mean that decisions are influenced by it… but there might be… who knows for sure?
That is why the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academies states that disclosure is only the first step and not necessarily sufficient. And I presented some of the reasons in my talk in Switzerland in 2015:
Summarizing, there is potentially a big (or as one presidential candidate says “yuge”) Conflict of Interest in telecom affairs. Often the CoI is disclosed but does it really matter or is it just a “window dressing”? As we learned form the past experiences, where “big bucks” come in there is a “temptation” to cut corners…
In the end, telecom controls both, safety standards setting committee (ICES) and the governmental regulation agency for wireless communications (FCC). They have it all and if someone wants to change it they bring “big guns” as e.g. prominent lawyer for CTIA, Mr. Theodore Olson, …
As an old saying says “the dogs are barking and the caravan goes on”…
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Paul – to restore some academic vs. industrial balance would be needed many, many new members from academia…
Dariusz – Regarding your concern about ICES CoI, remaining a member and promoting a more balanced membership by encouraging non-industry scientists and professionals to join seems to be the correct course of action to take.