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Facebook preparing for a lobbying push

Facebook is courting former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to manage communications ahead of its IPO. Facebook is courting former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to manage communications ahead of its IPO. (Brendan Smialowski/ Getty Images)
By Miguel Helft and Matt Richtel
New York Times / March 29, 2011

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Facebook is hoping to do something better and faster than any other technology start-up-turned-Internet superpower.

Befriend Washington.

Facebook has layered its executive, legal, policy and communications ranks with high-powered politicos from both parties, beefing up its firepower for future battles in Washington and beyond. There’s Sheryl Sandberg, the former Clinton administration official who is chief operating officer, and Ted Ullyot, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is general counsel, among others. The latest candidate is Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former press secretary, whom Facebook is trying to lure to its communications team.

With good reason, political and legal analysts say. Barely seven years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook, as much as any other company, is redefining the notion of privacy and transforming communications, media, and advertising.

While the company has come under fire for a series of privacy stumbles, it largely remains a darling of politicians. But Facebook has watched the missteps of Microsoft and Google in Washington, and knows its current skirmishes are merely a prelude to looming clashes over its influence.

“Information is the gold or the oil of the economy in the information age,’’ said Paul M. Schwartz, a scholar in information technology at the law school at the University of California Berkeley.

Schwartz said Facebook seemed to have learned quickly that demands for regulation would pile up.

Facebook declined to comment on its conversations with Gibbs, who is considering a position in Silicon Valley, not Washington.

The company said it understood the importance of having a Washington presence, mainly so it could explain its social networking service and its many features and privacy policies to lawmakers and regulators. But it played down the importance of having connections to both sides of the political spectrum.

Still, some privacy advocates are fretting over Facebook’s new hires. These critics say the company’s growing connections will dampen reasonable criticisms about some Facebook policies.