As Facebook has now officially signed-up the majority of the United States population, the site has launched a new strategy to protect itself from mounting legal battles: employing the services of powerful Washington politicos from both major parties. A recent New York Times article reveals some of the big names who have been courted by the social networking powerhouse:
There’s Sheryl Sandberg, the former Clinton administration official who is chief operating officer, and Ted Ullyot, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who is general counsel, among others. The latest candidate is Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former White House press secretary, whom Facebook is trying to lure to its communications team.
Political and legal analysts say that this is a pretty smart move to secure the future of Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar brainchild. Only seven years into its existence, the site has already made an indelible mark on the communications landscape and has helped to transform the ways in which companies reach consumers. In the process there have been many concerns raised about privacy and the amount of information that the site turns over about its users.
As the Times states, it seems that Facebook has taken notes from the legal woes of Microsoft and Google and understands that there will be additional Washington battles over its ability to influence both e-commerce and social communications. By winning over political influencers now, they can create a pre-emptive defense against the inevitable regulation challenges that will come from various advocacy groups, users and competing sites.
Facebook reps claim that their Washington moves have more to do with making the site understandable and accessible to government players as opposed to building up a cadre of allies who will defend or protect them in the future. Privacy advocates aren’t buying it, citing concerns that the growing political connections will quash fair criticism over the site’s policies. Facebook has been under fire a number of times for releasing personal information about its users to advertisers and by requiring folks to make significant privacy restrictions on their own accounts in order to prevent from sharing contact information with “friends” whom they may not actually know in real life.
Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of privacy programs at the Center for Law and Technology at UC Berkley tells the Times that “The practical implication is it’s going to make it more difficult for advocates to convince members of Congress that Facebook presents a privacy problem.” He adds that said the company’s politically connected executives are able to command an audience with government officials with ease to discuss not only site issues, but to convince them of the importance of the network to their own job security “One of the big points is to show lawmakers that Facebook is important to their own campaigns. Once that fact is established, Congress will not touch Facebook.”
It’s likely that we will see these friendships and hires on the Hill become just as beneficial to Facebook as they have to the big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies. While there will be the inevitable politicians who remain ‘unbought’ (or, perhaps, bought by advocacy groups or other social networks), Zuckerberg’s company will probably be just fine in the face of criticism so long as it keeps making friends in high places. Mind your privacy settings, kids.