Facebook Bulks Up Lobbying as Privacy Issues Increase

Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:21pm

Facebook’s Washington, D.C., office is a study in contrasts. The creaky, old-fashioned elevator in its building just north of Dupont Circle evokes an era when the telephone, not the Internet, was considered high-tech.

But then the grille-style doors open onto an airy third-floor space that befits a contemporary Silicon Valley startup, with high ceilings, exposed pipes and a RipStik skateboard sitting on the floor.

The stark architectural differences reflect the contradictions in the lobbying style of the young social media company that has sought to retain a hip West Coast sensibility even as it employs some traditional D.C. strategies to confront increasing challenges on Capitol Hill, particularly on privacy issues.

Tim Sparapani, who was hired just over a year ago from the American Civil Liberties Union to head the fledgling Washington team, said the Facebook office location and design are intended as a statement that this is not your standard K Street operation.

“The office fits our view of who we are,” Sparapani said.

But even as the four-person staff devotes much of its time to preaching the virtues of online communication to Congressional offices, the lobbyists acknowledge that Web-based social media get them only so far when it comes to influencing policy in this town.

“When you come to Washington, everyone wants face-to-face conversations,” Sparapani said.

Unlike their counterparts back at headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., the staff members here often shed their casual attire, don a suit and head to Capitol Hill for meetings.

Such meetings have become increasingly necessary as Members and advocacy groups have criticized the social media venture for sharing too much.

Fifteen organizations led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Facebook discloses information to third parties that “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations.” The complaint states that Facebook engages in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Congress should hold hearings on privacy issues to publicly air the privacy practices of online companies such as Facebook and Google.

“Google and Facebook have tried to say, ‘Stay focused on the stuff that is cool and not focus on the other stuff,'” Rotenberg said.

Key lawmakers have also jumped into the fray. In April, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and three other Democratic Senators — Michael Bennet (Colo.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Al Franken (Minn.) — wrote to Facebook President Mark Zuckerberg expressing concern about changes to the company’s privacy policy.

In response to the growing complaints and in consultation with Schumer’s office, Facebook in May unveiled changes it said would make it simpler for users to employ privacy settings.

Even so, Congressional inquiries have continued. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) sent a May 28 letter to Zuckerberg asking for a detailed explanation of the information about Facebook users that the company has provided to outsiders without the knowledge of account holders. Conyers also has said his committee is considering hearings and legislation related to electronic communications and online security.

Sparapani said that with Facebook’s growing popularity, “it is not surprising that everything we do is now under a microscope.”

He said some of the backlash is coming from “entrenched players in the marketplace” such as rival Internet companies that feel threatened by Facebook.

But Sparapani said the complaint lodged with the FTC “missed the mark.” Facebook, he said, does not turn over personal information about its users to advertisers but instead places ads on pages of people that fit certain demographics. EPIC’s Rotenberg concedes that point but still says Facebook provides information to third parties other than advertisers.

Sparapani, who was legislative counsel for privacy issues at the ACLU, now finds himself at odds with some of his former allies. The ACLU has even launched a petition drive against Facebook.

Sparapani suggested that many of the groups are using the privacy issue to invigorate their grass-roots supporters and raise funds.

Despite the fights over privacy, Facebook has made inroads on Capitol Hill, where at least 300 Members have Facebook pages. The company’s lobbyists have held briefings on their product for Hill staffers and have helped launch Facebook pages dedicated to politics and Congress.

That is a far cry from 2007 when the company’s first Washington employee, Adam Conner, working out of his home, spent much of his time just introducing lawmakers to the social media site originally created for college students. Before joining Facebook, Conner was director of online communications for House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

Last year Facebook decided to ramp up its Washington operation by hiring Sparapani in March of that year. Since then it has hired two others, Andrew Noyes, a former National Journal reporter, and Corey Owens, former spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union who had also worked at the ACLU.

Since registering with Congress to lobby in the second quarter of 2009, the company has spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on lobbying, according to disclosure reports.

Facebook, however, still spends far less than more mature online companies such as Google, which shelled out $5.3 million on lobbying in the past five quarters.

Sparapani, who expects Facebook’s D.C. outpost to grow, said he admires Google’s aggressive lobbying effort. But there are still some substantial differences between the two firms’ approaches. Unlike Google, Facebook does not employ outside lobbying firms and does not have a political action committee.

Facebook chief Zuckerberg has shown little interest in schmoozing Washington movers and shakers. Sparapani said Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old billionaire wunderkind who founded Facebook as a Harvard student in 2004, is focused on more technical issues.

“He still writes code,” Sparapani said. But other Facebook executives are more at home in Washington, including Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, who served as Larry Summers’ chief of staff at the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration. Summers is now Obama’s chief economic adviser.

Even without an army of inside-the-Beltway lobbyists, Sparapani said that Facebook has an asset in its users, many of whom who depend on their daily fix of news feeds from friends.

“Nobody has tried to take it away,” Sparapani said, “and woe be it to the one who does.”