AOLs big policy picture


Anyone who thinks of George Vradenburg, the government-policy chief for America Online, as a mere Washington lobbyist, doesn't see the big picture. Certainly not the picture Vradenburg describes. And he paints a very, very dramatic picture.

Compared with Vradenburg's vision, the common view of AOL-the 800-pound gorilla of Internet providers and online chat rooms and would-be master of the broadband world-is rather pedestrian.

Vradenburg sees his company at the vanguard of a worldwide technology revolution that will inevitably lead to a redistribution of wealth, to the benefit of poor nations around the globe.

"Around the world, people are talking about how to create capital markets that can empower venture capitalists and start-up companies, how they can reform telecommunications systems to reach more people at a lesser cost, and how they can improve their educational systems with better learning tools," says Vradenburg, who was named AOL's senior vice president of global and strategic policy in 1998 after almost two years as general counsel.

"We have an enormous opportunity at this time for the world to move in redressing economic imbalances that occurred as result of the industrial revolution," he continues. "Wealth is no longer tied to natural resources or physical transport access but increasingly based on human capital and intellectual capability."

So what is AOL's-and Vradenburg's-role in this world transformation? Persuading foreign governments to duplicate America's entrepreneurial model, of course.

"Most of the world is envious about what we've been able to create here in the U.S.," he explains, "and hungry for guidance in both commercial sense and policy sense about how they can create this kind of innovation in their countries."

AOL's critics are much less sanguine about the company's global expansion plans. Many see a company with policy goals no different from those of any other huge corporation: Ask the government either to help it get a leg up on the competition or to at least stay out of the way of growing profits.

Public advocates are still smarting over AOL's about-face on open-access rules that would force cable systems to establish equal terms for Internet service providers seeking access to their broadband networks. AOL dropped its year-long quest for government access rules when it announced plans to acquire Time Warner in January.

But Vradenburg insists that AOL's position has never really changed. Instead, the world came around to the company's view of how the broadband environment should work, negating the need for government rules. He notes that, on Feb. 28, AOL and Time Warner signed a formal agreement that calls for allowing an unlimited number of ISPs to offer service over the corporation's cable systems.

Not all open-access proponents are riled by AOL's new tack. Greg Simon, co-director of the OpenNet Coalition, still counts AOL as a loyal member, though one with a slightly different philosophy. "We have some ambiguity that we both live with," he explains. "Still, we both favor a national policy, if there's going to be government policy at all, rather than different policies dictated by the states."

Vradenburg fleshes out his company's policy: "AOL's position on this has been quite consistent. It is that cable systems offering multiple ISPs would encourage consumer choice. Over the last year, attitudes have changed almost 180 degrees. Virtually everyone now says open access is the right policy. There is disagreement over whether policy is best achieved through marketplace developments or through policy. We haven't shifted our objective; we have shifted to the different context in which we have found ourselves."

If AOL's merger gets its expected government approvals, the deal will mark a return to the TV business for Vradenburg, who served as CBS general counsel from 1980 until 1991. Prior to joining CBS, he worked on the network's team of outside lawyers fighting an ultimately losing battle against government efforts to restrict the networks from taking a financial interest in programs they air. (Those restrictions have since been eliminated.) As CBS general counsel, he led the company's defense against libel charges brought by Gen. William Westmoreland and directed efforts to fend off corporate takeovers by Ted Turner and Ivan Boesky.

In 1991, Barry Diller recruited him to be executive vice president at FOX Inc. and help develop the network. Vradenburg worked as a private entertainment-industry attorney in Los Angeles from 1995 until being asked to join AOL.