There were two major developments for the social media site Facebook in September.
The first was the introduction of a number of changes and new features. You probably heard about those, either from the f8 conference where Facebook announced them, or from the now-traditional backlash the changes brought.
The second development might be news to you. Facebook filed paperwork four days later to form a political action committee, which allows the corporation to make financial contributions directly to candidates.
User reactions to the move are almost nonexistent. And there was no mention of it during the f8 conference. In fact, there’s been little said about the PAC beyond this one-sentence statement:
“FB PAC will give our employees a way to make their voice heard in the political process by supporting candidates who share our goals of promoting the value of innovation to our economy while giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
The creation of this group is the latest step Facebook has taken to increase its government influence and savvy. In the 2011 fiscal year, it spent $550,000 in lobbying, $200,000 more than it spent the previous year.
Its office in Washington D.C., opened in 2007, now has more than a dozen employees, four of whom are federally registered lobbyists. The Washington office is headed by Joel Kaplan, former deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush.
Other big names in politics have also been attracted to the company. This summer, Joe Lockhart joined Facebook as vice president of global communications. Lockhart formerly served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton. Erskine Bowles, who was White House chief of staff from 1996-98, recently joined Facebook’s board of directors. And former Clinton White House official Sheryl Sandberg is the company’s chief operating officer.
Should Facebook users be as concerned about the social media platform’s growing interest in Washington as they are about the aesthetics of their profile pages? After all, many companies have political action committees. And individuals from the public and private sectors go back and forth all the time.
We’ll have to wait and see where Facebook decides to make contributions. But it’s not a stretch to assume their political bodybuilding has less to do with supporting politicians than it has to do with protecting itself from them.
It’s hard to imagine Facebook’s views on creating an “open and connected” world will match up with the views of users who value privacy. Potential regulations banning targeted online advertising without user’s consent, for example, would likely be lobbied against by companies like Facebook.
Facebook competitor Google is currently involved in a Federal Trade Commission antitrust probe. By increasing its political experience and connections, Facebook could be looking to curb similar scrutiny. And congressional interest in the company is sure to rise as concern grows over online privacy — an area where Facebook doesn’t have the best track record.
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