Any smart leader knows that to grow a business and protect an industry's interests, having a presence in Washington is essential. And these days, no new industry is more in tune with that reality than social media, as its size mushrooms in line with the number of companies competing in the online space, their detractors, and the people who use their services.
"These social media companies are focused on getting it right," says Rohit Bhargava, SVP of the global strategy and planning group at Ogilvy PR Worldwide's DC office. "They want to know the political issues people are raising. They want to respond to what people are asking for.
"The main reason they are here," he adds, "is to have a voice in the legislative process."
Putting out a shingle
Following the lead of Google, which established a DC office in 2005 and a permanent outpost three years later, Facebook has been beefing up its staff, now at 11 full-timers, including three lobbyists, and populating it with former staffers of both Democratic and Republican politicians. The most senior employee at Facebook's DC office is VP of global public policy Marne Levine, who was chief of staff to Larry Summers when he headed the National Economic Council under President Obama.
"Facebook understands the importance of having a Washington presence, especially at this early stage," says Andrew Noyes, public policy communications manager, spokesman for the company's DC office, and a former journalist. He says part of Facebook's mission is to educate policymakers about the company.
Twitter, which was unavailable to comment for this article, has followed the lead of Google and Facebook: late last year, it installed Adam Sharp, an ex-aide of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), as its government liaison in DC.
Google currently has a staff of 40 in its DC office, 10 of whom are lobbyists.
This new generation of tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, has also learned from early missteps of older, more-established entities, such as Microsoft and HP, both of which had to defend themselves in anti-trust cases.
Speaking of Microsoft, Michael Petruzzello, managing partner and CEO of Qorvis, says, "They deferred a decision to establish a presence in Washington and felt they had to play catch-up. There was a lot of talk that Microsoft had not matured its public policy apparatus as soon as it should have. Others have looked back and said, 'Let's be well prepared.'"
Unlike older tech companies, social media companies face a set of situations unique to them because of the reach of their offerings and how those services play out among the public. Increasingly, social media companies find themselves on the firing line of privacy and security concerns.
One high-profile case of cyber- bullying led to the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi last year after a private matter involving him went viral. Fellow student Dharun Ravi recorded Clementi's sexual encounter with another man in Clementi's dorm room on a computer's webcam. Then Ravi alerted his Twitter followers to watch it.
The government finds itself straddling two opposing points of view. On one hand, it must serve as a protector of public interests against social media's invasion of privacy. On the other, it finds itself a champion, a customer, and a beneficiary of the companies' long arm of influence and their ability to get the word out broadly and instantly.
Legislators are shaping a wave of new bills designed to address privacy issues, particularly issues surrounding the ability to track people's movements via the Web. And executives from Apple, Google, and Facebook spent time on the Hill in May with the Senate Judiciary Privacy Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee in hearings focusing on the issue of privacy.
Bills in Congress
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have introduced the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act to curb the misuse of sensitive consumer information
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has introduced the Do Not Track Online Act to help consumers prevent their personal information from being collected by online companies
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) are circulating a draft to protect the privacy of children online