In a Relationship or Just Friends? Facebook Cozies Up to Obama and Congress

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In early March, Barack and Michelle Obama appeared in an exclusive Facebook video from the White House. The topic was bullying prevention, and it was by far the highest profile in the series of online conversations the social-media behemoth has produced with various members of Congress and federal and state officials in recent months. "You can participate in the conversation online," the President said, "right here on Facebook."

That endorsement is one of the most provocative examples of how Facebook is changing the way the social-media industry is throwing its weight around in Washington. This week, the company's 10 Washington staffers moved into a gleaming 8,500-sq.-ft. (790 sq m) office near the White House, equipped with a studio for upcoming Facebook Live episodes with lawmakers. In recent months, the company has hired several experienced Washington hands, including Marne Levine, a former aide at President Obama's National Economic Council. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, is a former Clinton Administration official. And the company is reportedly courting Obama's former spokesman, Robert Gibbs.

Barely three years after opening its first Washington outpost, Facebook has assigned a team to offer tutorials to Congressional staffers and state officials. Another new hire works exclusively with prospective Republican presidential candidates. And Washington has responded: as of last year, more than 50 federal government departments had created 1,000-plus Facebook pages. "They're doing things that no one else has done before because the technology is so new," says Chris Calabrese, the American Civil Liberties Union's top privacy lobbyist.

Facebook's march into Washington began in late 2007, shortly after its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, unveiled Beacon, a program that allowed users to see granular details of the online behavior of their Facebook "friends." Privacy experts, particularly on Capitol Hill, fumed. That fall, Facebook's chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, approached Adam Conner, then a 23-year-old self-described Washington social-media evangelist, to join the company. Conner opened Facebook's first Washington office from his two-bedroom apartment. Congressional staffers and business consultants eager to learn about the company's privacy policies and discuss a range of issues — for example, how long tech companies should keep data like photos — tried to schedule meetings at Conner's "office." But he'd quickly suggest a nearby Starbucks. His business cards simply said, "Facebook — Washington," with no address. "There was no blueprint," he says. As the issues became more complex, it was clear Conner needed help. Facebook began adding to its Washington team.

The company's growth in Washington came as the White House, Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and several states separately moved to toughen Internet privacy laws. Just two weeks ago, the Obama Administration for the first time expressed support for an online-consumer-privacy bill of rights. Sources who have seen a draft version of a bill authored by Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts say it would empower the Federal Trade Commission to enforce laws on how companies collect privacy data from consumers. All of this has put Facebook and other social-media outfits on notice.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been busy befriending everyone it can on Capitol Hill. One of the most intriguing outreach efforts has been a new online program, Facebook Live, a breezy, talk show–like series of interviews — think C-SPAN meets YouTube — frequently hosted by Randi Zuckerberg, the CEO's sister and Facebook's head of consumer marketing. Recent guests have included Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent; and Senator Kerry. Bono and Mike Tyson have participated, and nearly 317,270 people "like" what Facebook executives call "the show."

Even the elusive, hoodie-wearing Mark Zuckerberg has joined the effort. Last summer, he made his first lobbying trip to Washington — wearing a dark gray suit and striped red tie — to meet and talk with various Congressmen about civil liberties and privacy protections for children. (The visit was prompted in part by letters from Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, criticizing Facebook's collection of nearly 600 million users' data.) In February, Zuckerberg was among a small, elite group of tech-industry CEOs at a private dinner with President Obama in northern California. The event's host was venture capitalist John Doerr, a major donor to the Democratic Party. On March 25, Zuckerberg participated in a discussion at Brigham Young University, in Salt Lake City, about how he built Facebook. Leading the question-and-answer session — aired, naturally, on the university's Facebook page — was Orrin Hatch, the embattled Utah Senator, who is chair of the Republican High-Tech Task Force. Hatch mainly invited Zuckerberg, he said, "to finally get you to accept me as a friend."

Facebook's live webcast of the White House conference on bullying briefly featured the President and First Lady, as well as Melody Barnes, an Obama adviser, and Facebook's chief security officer, Joe Sullivan. Levine, Facebook's vice president of global policy, says the company had "no editorial control" over the White House event. "We were helpful in terms of what they were trying to promote around bullying." Broadcasting the event hardly hurts Facebook's relationship with the Administration.

The company says its various efforts aren't a subtle form of lobbying. Not so, say government watchdogs. "It's clear these guys are working broadly in the arena of political influence," says Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group tracking lobbying. "And under the law, they don't have to leave a dollars-and-cents paper trail that reflects the efforts they're making," he says. Last year, Facebook spent $351,390 on federal lobbying, up from $207,878 in 2009, the first year it did so, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In comparison, in 2004, Google's second year of lobbying in Washington, it spent some $180,000, while last year, the company spent $5.1 million.

In nearly every way, Facebook's Washington buildup follows a pattern. During the late-1990s tech boom, software companies like IBM, Microsoft and Texas Instruments led the industry's charge into Washington, mainly to fight challenges from the U.S. Justice Department and several states to the industry's expansion efforts. Now, Washington's tech lobby is a billion-dollar industry, and those pioneers are being joined by the likes of Google, Facebook and, soon, Twitter.