Facebook has emerged as a political player in the state Capitol -- and not just because lawmakers are using the site to make "friends."
The Palo Alto-based company that revolutionized online communication has quietly begun shaping public policy in California. Facebook scored a major victory last month, when it persuaded legislators to shoot down a bill that would have made more user information private on social networking websites.
The fight over Senate Bill 242 revealed that Facebook had arrived on the state's political playing field -- and is just the tip of a growing iceberg.
In the last year, Facebook has spent more than $102,000 on lobbying in California and made its first contributions to political campaigns in the state. It has taken lawmakers out for lunch in Sacramento, hosted them at its Bay Area headquarters and lobbied on bills concerning Internet privacy, commuter benefits and use of social media by registered sex offenders.
"We're excited about having a presence in Sacramento," said Corey Owens, Facebook's associate manager for public policy. "It's still fairly new for us, but California is our home and we want to be supportive and responsive to legislators who are interested in our issues."
Facebook is joining a list of other major communication and technology companies that are politically active.
AT&T, for example, spent more than $2 million on lobbying in California in 2010, and has contributed more than $300,000 to political campaigns in the state this year. Google spent nearly $183,000 on lobbying in California last year and another $180,000 on state campaign contributions.
As a relative newcomer, 7-year-old Facebook has spent comparatively less.
It was just last year that the company hired a Sacramento lobbyist. Records show Facebook has made only two campaign contributions in California: $10,000 to the TechNet political action committee and $5,000 to oppose last year's Proposition 24, which would have rolled back tax breaks for businesses.
"Political giving is a way to develop relationships with policymakers outside the context of specific legislation," Owens said. "So I think it will remain a part of our political strategy, but we're always more interested in having conversations with individuals than anything."
The company is swiftly beefing up its political profile. In recent weeks, Facebook has hired Joe Lockhart, press secretary to former President Bill Clinton, and Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and for Meg Whitman's campaign last year for California governor.
Facebook's growing political presence comes as rumors fly that the company is preparing for a public stock offering. Experts said Facebook's political activity reflects its desire to keep regulators at bay and fend off competition from other Internet companies, like Google, that are developing their own social media platforms.
"The moment you see anybody hiring lobbyists or getting into the political arena, you know they are trying to defend their model," said Sanjay Varshney, dean of the business school at California State University, Sacramento. "By having lobbyists, they can try to swing certain things in their favor."
Facebook's Sacramento lobbyists have already succeeded at that.
Two lobbying companies represent Facebook in California: Gonzalez Quintana Hunter, a new firm, and Lang Hansen O'Malley, an established powerhouse. Facebook hired Gonzalez last year and retained Lang last month -- the day before a crucial vote on SB 242.
The bill by Democratic Sen. Ellen Corbett sought to change social networking sites by making most user information private unless users opt to go public, and by imposing fees on companies if they don't remove user information upon request.
Facebook and other Internet companies argued that people have sufficient opportunity to make their information private, and that the bill would erode the booming social media industry.
The bill was voted down on the Senate floor, with four Democrats who had supported a similar measure by Corbett the prior year voting no or not voting on SB 242.
Corbett chalked up her loss to "a more intensive lobbying effort" by Facebook and its allies.
"I was expecting they would still oppose," Corbett said. "Did I expect the intensity of their opposition? And the angry opposition? No."
Corbett said she's not giving up her fight and is planning a summit with law enforcement officials on Internet safety for children.
Sex offenders online
A hearing is scheduled today on another bill Facebook has taken an interest in: Senate Bill 57, which would require registered sex offenders to report their social media user names to law enforcement authorities. Facebook hasn't taken an official position on the bill by Republican Sen. Sharon Runner, but it supported a similar bill that stalled in committee earlier this year.
Facebook policy forbids sex offenders from joining its network. But they have been found on the site, and in 2009 Connecticut's attorney general announced that Facebook had removed the profiles of more than 5,500 convicted sex offenders.
"If we are made aware there is a registered sex offender on our site, we will disable that account," said Owens, the company representative.
Facebook is lobbying against a bill that would require websites to let users opt out of having their data tracked. Senate Bill 761, by Democratic Sen. Alan Lowenthal, is on hold until next year while the parties try to hash out their differences. It's sponsored by a group called Consumer Watchdog that has pushed for greater online privacy at the state and federal levels.
John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project, said Facebook is realizing that laws and regulations can have an impact on its business.
"They understand they've got to be players in any place where policy is made. That's why they're in Sacramento, and why they're stepping up very high at the national level," he said.
"It's all part of playing on that stage."
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