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Facebook appears to have shifted to a more traditional strategy since, building up a staff in D.C. to handle inquiries about the privacy issues inherent in its business model, which relies on users sharing data that can be used to target advertising. That has raised concerns in a way that the model of competitor Twitter has not, because Twitter’s default setting is to make every post public. Twitter has yet to begin lobbying, though it recently made its first policy hire, Federal Communications Commission veteran Colin Crowell.
Both Facebook and Twitter are hubs for online political advertising, which could also help them in their advocacy efforts. Broadcasters have long enjoyed political clout because politicians air ads on their stations and are hesitant to undermine them.
In addition to hiring its own lobbyists, Facebook has worked with Elmendorf and Ryan; Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock; and TeleMedia Policy Corp. to lobby the government on issues including consumer privacy and patent reform. The company has also pressed lawmakers on electricity and water issues in Oregon, where Facebook has built a massive data center that requires significant backup power.
Facebook’s efforts still pale in comparison to those of rival Google, which spent $3.5 million this year and more than $5 million last year on lobbying. But that could change as politicians pay closer attention to the social media sector, where Facebook is dominant.
As companies such as Facebook become a bigger part of America’s economy, lawmakers and regulators are taking a careful look at their practices. The Department of Commerce has been investigating how to protect consumer privacy online. The Federal Trade Commission’s proposal that companies not track certain data online could reshape Facebook’s behavioral advertising practices.
Last week, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt appeared before a Senate panel to defend his company’s search practices. In the past, Facebook has helped stoke concerns about how Google handles data. But Facebook, which also controls vast amounts of consumer data, could soon be sitting in the hot seat in Google’s place.
“The more successful Facebook is about becoming a social hub, the more likely they are to draw scrutiny that they are misusing their outside influence,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group that favors an open Internet. The group receives some funding from Facebook.
“A lot of this [lobbying] is proportionate to growth and influence,” Brookman said. “It’s more of a necessity when you’re the 900-pound gorilla.”