In the near term, Facebook's primary worry should be with the FTC and Commerce--and with regulators overseas, where most of Facebook's users are. But if Congress also moves to enact some type of privacy legislation, that could pose a problem as Facebook grows. "The law is slow," says the ACLU's Calabrese. "Technology is fast. It's tricky to craft broad legislation that deals with these problems today but that won't be obsolete tomorrow."
That's one reason Facebook's DC office is working to convince policymakers that self-regulation is the best policy--and that Facebook's economic interest in keeping its users happy offers better protection for their data in the long term than any government intervention could. "Without the trust of our users," Levine says, "we don't have a service."
And what is that service? Kirkpatrick says Facebook is rapidly becoming a "repository for identity." When I spoke with him, Kirkpatrick was in an airport on his way back home to New York. "I just went through security using my driver's license," he told me. "My license has some information about me, but Facebook has more than that. Facebook knows more about me than New York state does. That's a fact."
And because Facebook trades in real people exchanging information with other real people--some of whom are members of Congress and advisers to the President of the United States, as well as that annoying guy you went to high school with and hadn't spoken to in a decade before he "friended" you--it's rapidly becoming a complex communications service. Kirkpatrick thinks Facebook is morphing into a part of the Internet's infrastructure.
In time, much of what we do online could be done through Facebook. That's because its greatest attribute is us. Facebook contains our real identities, a more authentic "us" than the version that's on, say, our driver's licenses. Is the address on your license up to date? Your photo? That information on your Facebook page is likely current, perhaps up to the minute, because your friends are watching you.
And now Facebook is pushing our identities out into the broader Internet. The "like" button you see everywhere feeds information about us to other sites and to Facebook, where our friends see what we're doing and what we like and where they decide if they, too, "like" what we do. Content providers and advertisers respond to what's being liked by making or trying to sell more of it--a continual, self-sustaining loop that involves hundreds of millions of people who may or may not have any idea what's happening. This is what policymakers are grappling with.
"The government has generally done a very poor job of understanding the Internet," Kirkpatrick says, "and Facebook has made the Internet even harder to understand."
Next: Facebook's hectic future in Washington