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Facebook and the Government: Can They Ever Login and Be Friends? (Full Story)
Comments () | Published June 6, 2011
New Mexico Democratic senator Tom Udall is among the members of Congress who have gotten personal attention from Conner. Udall's campaign set up a Facebook page during his successful 2008 run for office. Then, once he arrived in Washington, Conner helped Udall's staff set up an official Facebook page for the state's junior senator.

"The Facebook DC office has definitely been helpful," says Dan Watson, Udall's online-communications director. But that help, Watson says, hasn't made the senator soft on Facebook. Udall, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, is participating in hearings this year on Internet privacy.

Udall isn't alone in having gotten direct assistance from Facebook. Every digital-media director on the Hill knows who Adam Conner is. And many have been aided by Conner or someone else in Facebook's Washington office. Even House speaker John Boehner's official Facebook fan page benefited from Facebook's direct help. The DC office assisted in streaming the opening session of the 112th Congress live on Facebook--the first time the event had ever been shown on the site.

Some in Washington would rather that Facebook not be quite so cozy with Congress. Among the company's critics is Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a small but boisterous outfit just up Connecticut Avenue from Facebook's old offices.

"We suspect that Facebook's role in assisting candidates with their political campaigns and with using various Facebook tools has actually diminished the interest of members of Congress in pursuing meaningful oversight of the company," Rotenberg says. "If General Motors were to turn around tomorrow and give each member of the House Oversight Committee ten cars free and clear, everyone would jump up and down and say, 'That's not ethical.' "

For its part, Facebook doesn't think it's doing business differently than any other group in Washington. After all, Google lobbies government officials directly and provides search tools, YouTube channels, and other services to Congress and other government entities. But Facebook doesn't deny that evangelizing the product yields a side benefit that could help when matters of policy come before congressional committees or Washington regulators.

"We spend a lot of time working with policymakers to educate them on what we do and what kind of changes we're rolling out with the product," says Marne Levine, who was chief of staff for President Obama's National Economic Council before joining Facebook. "It is a lot easier to have a conversation with somebody who has firsthand experience using it than talking about it in theory. The more they use Facebook, the more they understand Facebook."

And therein lies the core of Facebook's lobbying strategy in Washington: education. The more legislators know about how Facebook works, the less inclined they'll be to regulate the way Facebook handles personal data about its 500 million users. At least that's what Facebook is hoping.

Next: Facebook defends its privacy settings

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 06/06/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles