This much seems clear: Facebook is for now a one-of-a-kind service that provides communication among people. That sounds a lot like a communications monopoly. And, oh, how government loves to regulate monopolies.
"Facebook and Google and some other companies have to start worrying about being seen as utilities," says Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist at Levick Strategic Communications. "That means the government could start getting more and more involved in the operation of those companies to ensure that the American people are not being taken advantage of."
Regulating Facebook and Google as utilities would mean acknowledging that both lack serious competition and have become pervasive forces in the lives of millions. And then there are the cops.
"Facebook is one of the primary tools of law enforcement around the world today," Kirkpatrick says. "If you're a detective, no matter where you are, Facebook is likely to give you clues, leads, and important information--even if you don't ask for the company's cooperation." And that has the attention of Calabrese at the ACLU. He says that no matter how strict Facebook's privacy settings are or how robust its controls to keep your data locked down, current law doesn't precisely define what the FBI or police can and can't make Facebook tell them.
That's a concern for the ACLU and for Facebook. Both are part of the Digital Due Process Coalition, which meets in Washington to hash out the future of online policing everywhere.
A quick recap of the issues engaging Facebook's Washington office suggests that its staff here has its hands full. First, there's the task of expanding government's presence on Facebook. Then there are concerns about securing--or maybe sharing--private personal data, such as home addresses or phone numbers. And it would be good if a world standard for regulation could be worked out and if the digital powerhouses--Google and Facebook--could avoid being treated as a new Ma Bell. Never mind the whole question of having law-enforcement agencies subpoena information about Facebook users.
It seems like more work than ten people can handle.
Which may be one of the reasons why, as this article was going to press, Facebook was reportedly wooing former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to join the company as a communications executive. Gibbs has denied this, but if he's hired he could deliver powerful White House connections and a rapport with national media, which could instantly elevate Facebook's status in Washington.
The Los Angeles Times concluded earlier this year that Facebook remains "a bit player" on the lobbying scene, spending just over $350,000 last year, compared with Google's $5.2 million. But with new hires already in place and a busy year ahead for Facebook in Congress and elsewhere--plus at least one Skee-Ball machine to buy--that bit player may soon find itself in a leading role.
Illustrations by Brown Bird Design