6:41pm

Wed April 27, 2011
Politics

Facebook Has Powerful Friends; Will Users Suffer?

Originally published on Mon May 30, 2011 1:28 pm

President Obama has done pretty well on Facebook. He recently told an audience at a San Francisco fundraiser that he has 19 million friends on the website, "which only puts me half a million friends behind SpongeBob SquarePants."

The president's chummy relationship is not just with Facebook users — he's also friendly with Facebook executives.

Politicians have many reasons to "friend" the social networking site, which connects them with voters and can help them raise money. Last week, the company announced that it is ramping up its presence in Washington with a slate of new hires. Also last week, President Obama met with Facebook's founder and other tech leaders at the G-8 summit in France.

An Overly Chummy Relationship?

During a town hall meeting at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters, Obama introduced himself as the man who got founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to give up his trademark hooded sweatshirt for a jacket and tie.

"The first time we had dinner together, and he wore this jacket and tie," said Obama, "halfway through the dinner he's starting to sweat a little bit, it's really uncomfortable for him, so I helped him out of his jacket."

All this coziness makes some privacy activists uncomfortable.

"The Obama administration holds the keys to Facebook's future," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "I think the president should have been much more cautious when he stood up there with Mark Zuckerberg."

Facebook has more than 600 million members, about half of whom visit the site more than once a day to share photographs, describe their feelings or "like" a band. All that activity means the company owns a huge amount of information about a huge number of people. And the rules for what the company can do with that information are still being written.

"Many members of Congress who will be weighing in on this issue are users of Facebook," says Rey Ramsey, the CEO of TechNet, a political network of executives at tech companies, including Facebook.

Ramsey says he believes politicians writing new Internet privacy rules can be impartial, even as those same politicians may depend on Facebook for fundraising and communications. After all, Ramsey says, the government regulates all kinds of industries that politicians use every day. "We use electricity, but we have an agency that oversees that."

This concept of Facebook as a utility that people cannot live without in the modern world — like electricity, water or gas — is also gaining traction among Facebook's critics.

"If you don't like your power company or your water company, in the United States you likely have very few alternatives," says Christine Rosen of the technology journal The New Atlantis. "The same is true with social networking in this country and globally; Facebook dominates."

Rosen, who is also a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, believes people are now using Facebook "as if they're turning on a light switch or turning on their water, so I think it might be helpful to start thinking about some of the questions that raises about how the government should look at it."

A Push For Stronger Privacy Rules

Facebook, which declined to comment for this story, does not like people to call it a utility. After all, anyone can create a competing social network. And more to the point, utilities are heavily regulated.

Already, the government is moving toward stronger privacy regulations online.

The Obama administration released a privacy policy framework last year, and a bill in the Senate looks similar to the administration proposal.

"When it comes to privacy, the administration has a split within its personality," says Ohio State University Law professor Peter Swire. He was President Clinton's privacy adviser and served as a lawyer to the Obama social media team during the presidential transition two years ago.

"The campaign was based on motivating people through social networks," he says. "On the other hand, the administration is supporting unprecedented privacy protections. Working that out is tough for society, and it's a split for the administration, as well."

One administration official who works on these issues remarked that Facebook has disproportionately little contact with the White House compared with other big tech companies.

But Facebook is trying to change that. The recently announced hires are the first step to catching up with companies like Google and Microsoft in Washington.

Ed Black, CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, argues that these growing ties will have no impact whatsoever on the ultimate set of privacy rules. "Can you really imagine that Facebook's going to shut off one-third of the Congress who voted against them on something and not give them access? Do you realize how absolutely absurd that would be?"

While politicians do have an interest in using Facebook, they also have an interest in privacy. Elected officials are at least as worried as the rest of the world about what personal details of their lives online could someday be revealed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Before Mr. Obama visited Joplin, he was in France for the G8 Summit. And one of the people he spoke with in France was Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It's not the first time theyve met. In fact, Mr. Obama and other politicians have many reasons to friend Facebook. It can connect them with voters, and it can help them raise money. And Facebook announced this week that it's ramping up its presence in Washington, D.C., with a slate of new hires.

Here's NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama has done pretty well on Facebook. He recently told an audience at a San Francisco fundraiser that he has 19 million friends.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: Which only puts me half a million friends behind SpongeBob SquarePants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: He's also friendly with Facebook executives. During a town hall meeting at the company's Palo Alto headquarters, Mr. Obama introduced himself as the man who got company founder Mark Zuckerberg to give up the hooded sweatshirt.

President OBAMA: The first time we had dinner together and he wore this jacket and tie, I'd say halfway through dinner, you know, he's starting to sweat a little bit; it's really uncomfortable for him. So I helped him out of his jacket.

SHAPIRO: All this coziness makes some privacy activists uncomfortable. Jeff Chester runs the Center for Digital Democracy.

Mr. JEFF CHESTER (Center for Digital Democracy): The Obama administration holds the keys to Facebook's future. I mean, I think the president should have been much more cautious when he stood up there with Mark Zuckerberg.

SHAPIRO: Facebook has more than 600 million members. About half of them visit the website more than once a day to share photographs, describe their feelings, or like a band. All that activity means Facebook owns a huge amount of information about a huge number of people. And the rules for what the company can do with that information are still being written.

Mr. REY RAMSEY (CEO, TechNet): So many members of Congress who are going to be weighing into this issue are users of Facebook.

SHAPIRO: Rey Ramsey is CEO of TechNet, a political and policy network of tech companies that includes Facebook. He believes politicians writing new Internet privacy rules can be impartial, even though those same politicians depend on Facebook for fundraising and communications. After all, Ramsey says, the government regulates all kinds of industries the politicians use every day.

Mr. RAMSEY: We use electricity, but we have an agency that oversees that.

SHAPIRO: This concept of Facebook as a utility that people cannot live without in the modern world - like electricity, water or gas - is also gaining traction among Facebook's critics. Christine Rosen, of the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of a technology journal called The New Atlantis.

Ms. CHRISTINE ROSEN (Editor, "The New Atlantis"): If you don't like your power company or your water company, in the United States you likely have very few alternatives. The same is true, I think, with social networking in this country and, quite frankly, globally. Facebook dominates. So I think people are using it as if they're turning on a light switch or turning on their water. So it might be helpful to start thinking about some of the questions that raises, in terms of how the government should look at it.

SHAPIRO: Facebook, which declined to comment for this story, does not like people to call it a utility. After all, anyone can create a competing social network. And more to the point, utilities are heavily regulated. Already, the government is moving towards stronger privacy regulations online. The Obama administration released a policy framework last year, and a bill in the Senate looks similar to the administration's proposal. Ohio State Law professor Peter Swire was President Clinton's privacy adviser, and he was the lawyer to the Obama social media team during the presidential transition two years ago.

Professor PETER SWIRE (Law Professor, Ohio State University, President Clinton's privacy advisor): When it comes to privacy, the administration has a split within its personality. The campaign was based on motivating people through social networks. On the other hand, the administration is supporting unprecedented privacy protections. Working that out is tough for society, and it's a split within the administration as well.

SHAPIRO: One administration official who works on these issues remarked that Facebook has disproportionately little contact with the White House, compared to other big tech companies. But Facebook is trying to change that. The hires they announced are the first step to catching up with companies like Google and Microsoft in Washington. Ed Black is CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. He argues that these growing ties between politicians and Facebook will have no impact whatsoever on the ultimate set of privacy rules.

Mr. ED BLACK (CEO, Computer and Communications Industry Association): Can you really imagine Facebook's going to shut off one third of the Congress who voted against them on something, and not give them access? You realize how absolutely absurd that would be?

SHAPIRO: While politicians do have an interest in using Facebook, they also have an interest in privacy. Elected officials are at least as worried as the rest of the world about what personal details of their lives online could someday be revealed.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.