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LIKE US: Facebook has been courting legislators to ensure any future policies won't impact them adversely, writes Somini Sengupta
FOR nearly five years, Facebook has quietly and deftly befriended the nation's top lawmakers by giving them a little tech support.
In a typical session behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Facebook staff members have walked them through how best to use the site: what kinds of pictures to post on their profiles, how to distinguish between valuable constituents and the random gadfly, how to write compelling messages. Members of Congress have asked: how do I get more Facebook followers?
The answers have come from familiar faces: former political aides from both Republican and Democratic quarters, now employed by Facebook.
Facebook, whose long-awaited Nasdaq debut onFriday left it with a market value of nearly US$105 billion (RM329 billion), does much more in Washington than this kind of in-person hand-holding.
It has hired a stable of seasoned, well-connected insiders from both parties, stepped up its lobbying and set up a political action committee. Its lobbying budget -- US$1.35 million last year and US$650,000 so far this year, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics -- still pales in comparison with major companies in more established industries, like military and pharmaceuticals.
But Facebook stands out for having staked out a Washington strategy so early in its history.
This engagement with lawmakers is likely to matter much more to Facebook in coming months, as the company confronts the need to turn the data provided by its 901 million users into faster, greater returns for its new, hungry shareholders.
It is likely to do so mostly through targeted advertising, so any legislation that restricts how it collects and uses data will be potentially damaging -- and now that Facebook is a public company, potentially infuriating to investors.
The training sessions, at least, seem to have been highly effective so far. A majority of lawmakers have embraced Facebook as a way to reach voters.
"It's smart advocacy 101," said Rey Ramsey, chief executive of TechNet, an industry group that includes Facebook and other Internet companies. "It starts with giving people an education. Then you start explaining more of your business model. What you ultimately want is for a legislator to understand the consequences of their actions."
According to privacy advocates, who follow Facebook's lobbying efforts, the company will want to stave off legislation that could limit the use of location data from mobile devices, for instance, or restrict what information can be shared with advertisers.
The company could be especially damaged by more aggressive scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which has already subjected Facebook to a costly 20-year audit of its data use policies.
Facebook cites government policy as a risk factor to prospective shareholders. "Many of these laws and regulations are subject to change and uncertain interpretation and could harm our business," it states in its offering document with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A Democratic aide in the Senate said Facebook realised it needed to engage with lawmakers to protect its business.
Critics have questioned whether an embrace of Facebook as an increasingly vital political tool would make lawmakers go soft on the company on issues like privacy.
"That's clearly something they do to curry favor with members of Congress," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for greater government transparency. NYT