For nearly five years, Facebook has quietly and deftly befriended the nation’s top lawmakers by giving them a little tech support.
In a typical session behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Facebook staff members have walked them through how best to use the site: What kinds of pictures to post on their profiles, how to distinguish between valuable constituents and the random gadfly, how to write compelling messages. Members of Congress have asked: How do I get more Facebook followers?
The answers have come from familiar faces: Former political aides from both Republican and Democratic quarters, now employed by Facebook. Patrick Bell, an aide to Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican from Washington, recalled a meeting last fall where a one-time Republican aide, Katie Harbath, counselled a room full of Republican lawmakers on how to use the site to communicate with voters. "We had a Republican from Facebook talking to Republicans. They love that," he said.
Facebook, whose long-awaited Nasdaq debut on Friday left it with a market value of nearly $105 billion, does much more in Washington than this kind of in-person hand-holding. It has hired a stable of seasoned, well-connected insiders from both parties, stepped up its lobbying and set up a political action committee. Its lobbying budget—$1.35 million in 2011 and $650,000 so far this year, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics—still pales in comparison to major companies in more established industries, like military and pharmaceuticals. But Facebook stands out for having staked out a Washington strategy so early in its history.
This engagement with lawmakers is likely to matter much more to Facebook in coming months, as the company confronts the need to turn the data provided by its 901 million users into faster, greater returns for its new, hungry shareholders.
It is likely to do so mostly through targeted advertising, so any legislation that restricts how it collects and uses data will be potentially damaging—and now that Facebook is a public company, potentially infuriating to investors.
The training sessions, at least, seem to have been highly effective so far. A majority of lawmakers have embraced Facebook as a way to reach voters.
"It's smart advocacy 101," said Rey Ramsey, chief executive of TechNet, an industry group that includes Facebook and other Internet companies. "It starts with giving people an education. Then you start explaining more of your business model. What you ultimately want is for a legislator to understand the consequences of their actions."
According to privacy advocates who follow Facebook's lobbying efforts, the company will want to stave off legislation that could limit the use of location data from mobile devices, for instance, or restrict what information can be shared with advertisers. The company could be especially damaged by more aggressive scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which has already subjected Facebook to a costly 20-year audit of its data use policies.
Facebook cites government policy as a risk factor to prospective shareholders. "Many of these laws and regulations are subject to change and uncertain interpretation and could harm our business," it states in its offering document with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A Democratic aide in the Senate, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said Facebook realised it needed to engage with lawmakers to protect its business. "It reflects an increased awareness that what the people's representatives in Washington think matters, as opposed to a sole focus on what their user base thinks, or a sole focus on innovation without explanation."
Critics have questioned whether an embrace of Facebook as an increasingly vital political tool would make lawmakers go soft on the company on issues like privacy.
"That's clearly something they do to curry favor with members of Congress," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for greater government transparency. "Clearly Facebook has something members of Congress want. They are taking advantage of a product they have to get closer to members of Congress."
Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican who oversees a subcommittee responsible for online privacy, dismissed that criticism, arguing instead that familiarity breeds a deeper understanding of consumer privacy issues. Ms. Bono Mack has 5,000 friends on her personal Facebook page, she said, and uses it to post things ranging from pictures of her dog to legislation proposed on the Hill.
"If anything, having an understanding of it, I have a keen awareness of the issues, I have a keen awareness of my own privacy," she said, adding that she planned to watch whether Facebook's approach to privacy would change as it faced extra pressures to make money. "Now that they are a public company, there will be an opportunity to watch what happens."
Joel Kaplan, vice-president for United States public policy at Facebook, said in an e-mail that the company's efforts in Washington "reflect our commitment to explaining how our service works, the actions we take to protect the more than 900 million people who use our service, the importance of preserving an open Internet and the value of innovation to our economy."
That Facebook is a global business, with more than half of its users outside the United States, complicates matters. The European Commission, based in Brussels, has already proposed new rules that would constrain how Internet companies use personal information. They would allow consumers to transport their data from one site to another and ask Web site owners to delete their personal data forever - provisions that several Internet companies, including Facebook, have described as burdensome. And there would be hefty fines for noncompliance.
"The fight will eventually be in Washington and Brussels about what they'll be allowed to do," said David Eastman, chief executive for North America for the advertising agency JWT and its worldwide digital director. Facebook, in many ways, has profited from the experience of the technology companies that came before it. Microsoft eschewed Washington until it got in trouble over antitrust matters; Google set up a Washington office after going public in 2004.
Facebook established a foothold in Washington in 2007, first by hiring a young political aide, Adam Conner, to work out of his apartment, and then by plucking several well-known Washington insiders. It invested early in educating lawmakers on the advantages of using its site. Lately it has been encouraging them to humanize their pages by posting photos of personal milestones. Several, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, have uploaded childhood photos.
Representative McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington, credited the company with ensuring that 85 percent of House Republicans had Facebook pages. "A key driver of that growth is Facebook's D.C. team, which has been eager to explain how their platform works and quick to suggest innovative ways for members to stay more connected to the constituents we represent," the congresswoman said.
Facebook has hired well-connected political aides with access to top leaders in both parties. They include Mr. Kaplan, who was a White House deputy chief of staff under President George W. Bush; Marne Levine, a former Obama administration economic adviser; and Erin M. Egan, one of the capital's most influential privacy lawyers.
Even beyond Washington, Facebook is peppered with politicos. President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, sits on its board. A former Clinton press secretary, Joe Lockhart, is part of its communications team. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, served under President Clinton, too, as a chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers. And its general counsel, Ted Ulyot, was chief of staff in the Justice Department under President Bush.
©2012 The New York Times News Service