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Facebook hires a former foe as Washington lobbyist

Timothy Sparapani, who previously was an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, will now be responsible for shaping Washington's view of the social-networking site.

June 22, 2009|Kim Hart

Facebook Inc.'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 had 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 website 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, Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc.

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 the Facebook staff 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 minority 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," Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) said. "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."

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 last 1 1/2 years, 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."

Technology firms have historically been slow to forge relationships with the federal government. Microsoft reluctantly built a lobbying engine 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 of 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.

Chester acknowledged as much. "We're going to be hard on Tim," he said. "Hiring Tim is going to be a litmus test for Facebook; he understands data collection, and he's deeply concerned about it. Given his history as a privacy advocate, Tim is simply not going to be able to accept, without a crisis of conscience, any technique by Facebook that would unfairly use and reveal data."

At 34, Sparapani is almost a decade older than Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, 25. He calls Facebook, which has 900 employees, a "start-up." Google, by comparison, has more than 20,000 full-time employees.

Most recently, users cried foul when Facebook changed the language of its terms of service to imply that the site had irrevocable rights to all the content, including photos and personal information, even if users delete their profiles from the site. Facebook retracted the change and vowed to give users more input in terms of service agreements.

Although Facebook maintains that it does not reveal any personally identifiable information about users to advertisers, privacy advocates say the third parties who develop the quizzes and trivia games found on the site are given too much access to users' data.

"No one's going to say Facebook hasn't stumbled along the way," Sparapani said.

Kevin Bankston, senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said about Sparapani, "It's always a good development when a civil liberties perspective gets injected in a corporate culture. Instead of advocating for the general public, he's advocating for Facebook users, which is quickly becoming synonymous with the general public."


Hart writes for the Washington Post.

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