POLITICS NOVEMBER 16, 2011
Silicon Valley generally leans left of center in its politics, and Facebook, the web’s leading social utility valued at an estimated $85 billion, hasn't often seemed inclined to be an exception. After all, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, has himself gone out of his way to make supportive appearances with President Obama. During a town hall meeting at Facebook in April, Obama emphasized the necessity of a tax plan that includes higher income tax percentages for the rich, to which Zuckerberg—who’s worth an estimated $17.5 billion—replied, “I’m cool with that.”
But increasingly, Facebook isn’t just a Silicon Valley company anymore. The company has made no secret of its desire to increase its presence and influence in Washington D.C.—and it seems to be preparing the ground there by shifting its ideological allegiances. Indeed, many of the new hires that Facebook has placed in its new 8,600 square foot office in downtown D.C. turn out to be lobbyists with longstanding ties to the GOP. All of which begs the question: Is Facebook updating its status to Republican?
Certainly, the ties between the company and the Democratic Party are more than skin deep. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg—Zuck’s right-hand woman—not only sits on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitivenes and previously served as chief of staff for former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers during the Clinton administration, she recently hosted a fundraising dinner at her home that the President himself attended. Joe Lockhart, Facebook’s Vice President of Communications, was the White House press secretary for President Clinton, and Erskine Bowles, a Facebook board member, was Clinton’s chief of staff.
Between 2007 and 2010, Facebook’s D.C. lobbying outfit appeared to reflect that leftward political bent. The company had just two registered, and clearly liberal, lobbyists: former American Civil Liberties Union senior legal counsel Tim Sparapani, who was also a policy advisor for the Kerry/Edwards ’04 and Edwards ’08 campaigns; and a spunky George Washington grad named Adam Conner, who felt no qualms being candid about his politics on Twitter. “Looked down and realized I was wearing this same down vest on election day and night. Kept that Obama 08 sticker on for years,” reads one recent entry.
By early 2011, however, Facebook had upped its staff to seven after hiring several public policy and communications staffers—and the political tide began to shift. It brought on Joel Kaplan, former deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush, as head of public policy at the D.C. office. Other additions included Myriah Jorden, who had previously served as Republican Senator Richard Burr’s general counsel, and Kathie Harbath, a former digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The new GOP hires supplement the all-Republican lobbying firm, Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, that Facebook commissioned to lobby on “legislative and policy issues related to technology and Internet policy, including personal privacy, protecting children, and advancing online security,” according to a disclosure form. Then Sparapani, one of Facebook’s first public hires, left the company in October, making the balance of ideology even more lopsided.
Facebook has reached across the aisle in other ways as well, sponsoring events such as a “Facebook Live” conversation in September in which the GOP’s “Young Guns”—House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan—took questions in front of an audience of about 100 company employees and guests. And Facebook, along with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” will also sponsor an upcoming GOP debate the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary in January.
So what does it all mean? Experts who’ve monitored the company’s lobbying rampup say it might have less to do with Facebook evincing any specific political agenda than simply a sign that it is becoming more sophisticated in playing the Washington political game. After Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last November, “Facebook had some catching up to do on the right,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency in government. “Expanding their influence in D.C. is a sign of the company becoming more mature. They seem to be following the same path as Microsoft did in the ’90s and as Google has done recently; although we haven’t seen Facebook at any major hearings, we haven’t seen their executives take to the floor like those companies, it may be that they are taking these steps preemptively.”
Moreover, Facebook may simply be realizing that just because its employees identify with the Democratic Party doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s looking out for the company’s best interests. In the past year, Facebook has been blindsided by a number of attacks from Democratic lawmakers who are trying to appeal to a burgeoning number of their constituents who are concerned about the privacy of their information online. It seems that before Facebook sought to curry favor with the GOP, Democrats downgraded their own relationship status with Facebook to “It’s complicated.”
Facebook’s first publicized fallout with Democrats began with one individual in particular—one of their own. During his 2010 Democratic primary campaign for California attorney general, Chris Kelly, who had been the site’s Chief Privacy Officer since 2005, decried the company’s plan to share users’ data with third-party websites without their consent. Kelly banded together with the progressive organization MoveOn.org, writing in an e-mail to members that Facebook is obliged to uphold “its commitment to privacy by sharing user information only with prior approval.”
Then, in March 2011, the Democratic senators of the Judiciary Committee on Privacy, Technology and Law—including Al Franken, Chuck Schumer, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Richard Blumenthal—condemned a Facebook policy that would allow app developers to ask users for additional personal information. In a letter, the senators urged the site to eliminate the feature entirely or, “at minimum,” block the feature for users 17 and under. And months later, Democratic Representative Ed Markey sounded alarms after Facebook automatically activated, without prior notice, a facial-recognition tool that made “tag suggestions” in all its users’ photos.
Privacy, meanwhile, hasn’t been the only bone of contention between Facebook and Democrats. Democratic Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller said in a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by Mark Zuckerberg’s remarks suggesting that the site would open its membership to 13-year-olds. The senator personally contacted the company, after which Zuckerberg clarified that it was not a company goal to bring younger users onto the site. An unconvinced Rockefeller, however, cited a Consumer Report noting that as many as 7.5 million users younger than 13 are on Facebook, urging the site to “step up their protection of children.”
In putting all its eggs in one basket and not making an early effort to cultivate friends on both sides of the aisle, in other words, perhaps Facebook was acting as young and naive as its 27-year-old CEO. Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, explained, “[Facebook] has been late and slow at figuring out that legislation can have a very dramatic impact on their profit margin ... but [now] they are spending money in a strategic way, doing what I call, ‘abusing the revolving door.’”
And when it comes to privacy legislation, Facebook, of all social media platforms, perhaps has the most to lose. The company’s profits, after all, depend on its users’ willingness to share information about themselves. With 800 million members and counting, the social networking site has plenty of user data, but it wants more. “Many companies have rejected the notion that they have to get involved in politics,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “But it is clear that Facebook is serious, and that [their presence in Washington] is a business proposition.”
After initially throwing in their lot with Democrats, Facebook may have quickly learned a hard lesson that neither party on the Hill can be fully trusted as an ally. And when it comes to lobbying, it’s best to do what any good social networker would tell you: Try to make friends with everyone.
Nicole Nguyen is an intern at The New Republic.