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June 10, 2010

Facebook lobbies Congress as internet privacy concerns increase

By CREW Staff

The topic of internet privacy has been all over the news (and Facebook feeds) ever since Facebook rolled out its most recent platform, which among other changes granted third-party websites access to users’ personal information, including photos, video, notes and comments. The controversial changes were first alluded to in an April 21, 2010 blog post by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and were implemented shortly after. Within two weeks, fifteen privacy groups filed a complaint with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) seeking an investigation into the social-network giant over possible deceptive trade practices.

Several lawmakers, not deaf to the public outcry, have called for investigations into and possible regulation of internet privacy issues. The head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) sent letters to Google and Facebook on May 28, requesting that the online companies cooperate with any government inquiries into their privacy practices. A month earlier, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) referred to Facebook’s move to share user information as raising “major privacy concerns” and called on the FTC to put in place guidelines for use of private information.

Facebook has certainly been feeling the pressure. Publicly, Facebook has been on the defensive, acknowledging users’ privacy concerns and creating additional privacy settings, including a simpler option for restricting third-party access. Politically, Facebook has been active lobbying Congress. In June 2009, Facebook registered its first two lobbyists and within one year has spent nearly $250,000 lobbying Congress on internet privacy and regulation issues. Their last quarterly lobbying disclosure of $41,390 was reported on April 15, 2010.

In addition, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Christopher Kelly, has been steadily increasing his personal federal political contributions in the face of increased federal attention. In 2008, Mr. Kelly made his first contributions as a Facebook employee, totaling $3,700. In the 2010 election cycle Mr. Kelly has thus far contributed $17,020 and is the only significant Facebook donor this cycle. All of his donations went to Democratic committees and campaigns.

Facebook is not the first organization to increase lobbying efforts and political contributions in the face of potential regulation. In 2009 CREW released the report, Payday Lenders Pay Up, a look into the payday loan industry’s efforts to gain influence in Washington amid greater congressional scrutiny. CREW has also looked into the political activities of the debt settlement and high-frequency trading industries.

The privacy issues raised by Facebook’s trailblazing policies are not likely to fade into the distance; CREW will continue to monitor as internet organizations, lawmakers and public citizens struggle to define “internet privacy”.

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