Facebook doesn’t just have its own movie it has its own reality show. Nearly weekly, sensational stories have been popping up which go beyond Zuckerberg’s personality to real privacy issues important to consumers. The latest news has Facebook exposed for lobbying California politicians against the Social Networking Privacy Act. A story which offers companies a serious lesson in lobbying.
Facebook spent a rather paltry sum of $6,600 to defeat a bill titled The Social Networking Privacy Act which would restrict social-networking sites from sharing minors’ privacy information such as addresses and phone numbers. Facebook has a right to argue against legislation which would come with burdensome regulatory requirements. Heck, any company has the right to argue against burdensome regulatory provisions. No company should stand by idly and allow the government to impose costly or restrictive laws on them if they feel it could restrict business growth. In this case, Facebook may have even been on the right end of the issue as some privacy groups and critics seem to be opposed to this level of privacy regulation. So what was wrong with this lobbying?
Senator Ellen Corbett, the sponsor of the legislation told the reporter who broke the CA lobbying story that “It appears they just worked in the background, to kill the bill.” This powerful statement and the appearance of Facebook lobbying against minors’ privacy obviously left many quite annoyed and leaves the company in the awkward position of again being in the defensive about their privacy settings and policies. Whatever was gained by Facebook leading the charge on this lobbying issue was likely lost on the larger appearance problem generated.
If this was Facebook’s only political issue with privacy it would be ok to take the bullet and be seen as the champion killer on this California bill, but it isn’t. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal exposed Facebook privacy information susceptible to dozens of advertising and tracking companies. This report led to a serious letter from two Congressmen with direct technology jurisdiction who asked Facebook a series of pointed answers while rebuking the company. Ironically, Mark Zuckerberg was supposed to have answers back for this Congressman the same day that this California lobbying story broke.
Appearance is a tricky thing in lobbying. It’s important to be seen with elected officials and influence makers as an advocate for important issues, but that appearance can’t be all bad. A company or individual can’t take all the flak for every lobbying fight or lobbying battle and here we see Facebook at the forefront on an issue that doesn’t JUST affect them. In fact, the same story that uncovered the Facebook lobbying discovered that TechNet – a coalition which includes Google and Microsoft also lobbied against the Social Networking Privacy Act. Facebook should not have been the ‘face’ of this lobbying effort and should have instead spent their time and money consolidating their efforts under the existing Microsoft/Google coalition. This would have allowed them to fight for the issues they care about while at the same time avoiding the negative attention this latest snafu is drawing. Instead, Facebook has inflicted an unnecessary public wound which highlights their attempts to kill user privacy and places a giant bull’s-eye on the company by elected officials as the poster boy for privacy regulation.
The California lobbying also inflicts a constituency wound which could plague Facebook’s future lobbying. Facebook is one of many technology companies which view itself through a lens that believes that the popularity of the product transcends traditional rules. Take Facebook’s Washington lobbying operation, which is a handful of people that relies on the popularity of the product to spread the good word to Members of Congress. In an interview with Politico, Facebook’s director of public policy stated, “They tell members they like it, members themselves use it, …and that is an advantage that we have that not many other companies have.” Facebook shrewdly realises that instead of spending money in Washington they can leverage the shared constituency of a Facebook user who is also a voter to highlight the popularity of their product. This strategy works great as long as the Facebook user is happy. Constituency is also susceptible to appearance issues. Just as President Obama is now learning that his original 2008 constituency has withered due to disaffected and unhappy voters so will Facebook’s users who will likely become less a “user” and more a “concerned citizen” if they view Facebook as a threat to their family’s privacy.
Companies must engage state and federal elected officials in advocacy where their input leads to meaningful policy and they are seen as a lobbying interest that must be heard. But companies must also protect this productive advocate brand by being extremely careful to know which battle to fight and how to fight it. With this latest lobbying fight in California, Facebook won the battle on the actual legislation and being seen as a power-broker to be feared but lost the war in the longer-term regarding their credibility. Credibility which will be required for much-larger privacy discussions expected in the next Congress and throughout the Country.
Maury Litwack is a lobbyist, former Hill staffer, advocacy opinion writer and author of the recently published The Capitol Plan – A Comprehensive Washington Advocacy Strategy