Attention, White House. You have one new notification.
Facebook would like to be your friend. You can choose to either confirm or ignore this request.
Although the Obama administration has yet to consummate fully its relationship with the ubiquitous social networking site, the growing number of Washington politicos defecting to Palo Alto suggests the beginnings of a dangerously symbiotic association.
But there’s really nothing new about this hiring philosophy. For decades, federal officials have whizzed through K Street’s revolving door en route to high-paying careers as lobbyists and consultants, cashing in Capitol connections and influence for not-quite-government salaries. Unfortunately, the White House has become the largest supplier of income-hungry staffers, providing double the number of future lobbyists than the next top revolving door agency, the Department of Defense.
The presidential residence appears to be once more the training ground for yet another future millionaire. People familiar with the negotiations have hinted Facebook is courting former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs for a role on the company’s communications team, a position potentially worth millions of dollars, as well as shares in the nearly $60 billion initial public offering.
The news is as unsurprising as it is infuriating. With public pressure mounting on government officials to tackle Internet privacy and security issues, Facebook has been steadily building its policy team, co-opting ex-government officials to secure easy relations with federal regulators. As users continue to post private, valuable information to the website, the collusion between two entities with various interests in our personal data appears especially terrifying.
University of Wisconsin life sciences communication professor Dietram Scheufele, who has published extensively on issues regarding public opinion and political communication, said Facebook’s Washington recruiting efforts are “very much about guaranteeing an inside track with the federal government.”
“The relationship will be relevant for a whole number of discussions, including privacy concerns, providing services to federal agencies, web neutrality and discussions with the FCC,” said LSC professor John Ross.
Facebook’s roster of political insiders is intentionally impressive. With tentacles stretching into nearly every area of federal governance, the tech giant will have no trouble silencing pro-privacy advocacy groups – a truly troublesome prospect considering more than 500 million people log 700 billion minutes per month on the site.
The names of ranking Facebook officials read like a Who’s Who of past D.C. power players. There’s Marne Levine, former chief of staff of the National Economic Council; Adam Connor, former House Rules Committee director of online communications; Sheryl Sandberg, former Clinton administration official; and Ted Ullyot, former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
There is a much more extensive list of people with a right to be concerned about Facebook’s growing government influence – basically, anybody who uses the Internet. Despite relatively strict lobbying rules for the executive branch, ex-administration members such as Gibbs could provide an invaluable list of federal contacts, and also recount President Barack Obama’s Internet agenda to a roomful of strategists bent on circumventing government policies and manipulating forthcoming legislation
Obama once said, “No political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years.” Surely he will remind Americans that, despite Facebook’s attempts at accumulating influence and connections, the company stands no chance at currying favor from his administration.
And maybe, in a giant stroke of irony, the reassurance will come on April 20, when the president will greet the nation on a live Internet stream through the Facebook Live feature, from Facebook headquarters, in response to questions posted on Facebook. Probably not, though. Instead, the president’s disappointing move will drive traffic toward Facebook, in turn generating revenue for the site. His appearance also fails to assuage public fears Facebook has become an arm of Obama’s political machine.
The controversy is another depressing reminder of corporate influence and control in politics. After all, Obama isn’t just swinging by California to preach from the Facebook pulpit; a $35,800 per person “Victory Fund dinner” will conclude his April 20 visit to San Francisco. Even if it is the president’s mouth moving on our computer screens, it pays to remember that it’s the money doing all the talking.
Eric Carlson ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism.