Facebook Taps Privacy Hawk as Lobbyist

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

Facebook's newly minted lobbyist used to be one of the company's most formidable adversaries.

As a prominent privacy advocate, Timothy Sparapani, former senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that Internet companies have too much control over consumers' data. The self-described "privacy zealot" didn't join Facebook until seven months ago because he was uneasy about revealing personal information on the site.

Now Sparapani is responsible for shaping Washington's view of Facebook, the world's third-most-viewed site with more than 200 million users, and the privacy policies that will define its business. It's a sign that one of Silicon Valley's most influential companies wants to cultivate influence in Washington, and much earlier than its tech titan predecessors Google and Microsoft.

Sparapani has earned a reputation in Washington as a tenacious champion of consumers' privacy rights. At the ACLU he fought against racial profiling in airport security lines and pushed for stricter rules for how patient information should be used in electronic medical records.

He joins Facebook at a time when Congress is considering placing restrictions on how Internet companies collect, store and use consumer data. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet, and ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) have asked Google, Yahoo and Facebook for policy recommendations. Privacy watchdogs say the companies' self-regulation has failed to fully inform users of how their personal information is treated online.

"I think it's a big deal if someone tracks what you look at and where you go without your personal approval," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.). "It still is a little bit of a Wild West out there, and I think it's time that Congress take a look at that and bring the law to that area."

A Voice at the Table

It is the possibility of new privacy legislation that has prompted Facebook to beef up its team of lawyers and its presence in Washington. Sparapani's arrival brings Facebook's fledgling Washington team to two people. For the past year and a half, 24-year-old Adam Conner has been the lone representative, his main job being to educate members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers about leveraging Facebook to reach constituents.

"We need to be here to define ourselves before someone else does it for us," Sparapani said. "It's clear we need to be part of the new thinking of Washington -- and early in the company's maturation process."

Silicon Valley technology firms have historically been slow to forge relationships with the federal government. Microsoft reluctantly built a lobbying engine here to take on an antitrust battle a decade ago, after 20 years of neglecting Washington. Google did not assemble a robust policy team until two years ago, largely to lobby the Federal Communications Commission in last year's $20 billion spectrum auction.

Five-year-old Facebook plans to expand its Washington team. The Obama administration's interest in using social networks in government has raised questions about the technology.

"The fact that the government has access to Web 2.0 tools, does that mean that a commercial site has information about political behavior?" said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy rights advocate. "Does that mean the government has access to our profiles?"

These are familiar questions for Sparapani. "I used to be one of them -- I know they won't give me a free pass," he said.

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