As computer-savvy Americans have grown accustomed to routinely checking their Facebook pages, this year the online social-networking venture decided to give serious face time to Members of Congress and their staffs.
In May, the Silicon Valley-based company registered a federal lobbyist and has since spent almost $170,000 trying to convince lawmakers not to meddle with the Internet.
With its debut into the world of Washington lobbying, Facebook joins other young companies who cater to the hip Web-surfing generation and who have found that roaming the halls of Congress is healthy for their businesses.
While still vastly outspent by the old-line pharmaceutical, oil, insurance and financial companies, many of these less traditional outfits are pouring more bucks into lobbying. Web-based companies, including Amazon.com, Yahoo, Google, eBay, Expedia and GoDaddy.com, all spent more on lobbying in the third quarter of this year than they did in the first or second quarters, according to disclosure reports filed with Congress last week.
On behalf of those who can’t make it to Vegas, the Poker Players Alliance shelled out almost $1.3 million so far this year to lobby for easing curbs on Internet gambling.
Other companies that are more associated with the latte-sipping set than the steak-eating, cigar-chomping lobbying stereotype are also working Capitol Hill.
Seattle-based Starbucks has spent $330,000 on lobbying so far this year on issues such as import duty reductions and food labeling. National Public Radio, in search of more federal dollars, dished out more than $317,000 for lobbying in the first three quarters of the year.
Even as many of these players have linked up with the much-maligned profession of lobbying, Facebook’s recently hired chief lobbyist stressed that his job was not to nab earmarks or grab a federal grant.
“What I am doing is explaining what this free service is,— said Timothy Sparapani, who was recruited by Facebook from the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is a very white-hat lobbying position to be in.—
Many companies are clearly increasing their presence on Capitol Hill because they are worried about efforts to control Web content.
But a number, including Starbucks and Google, also are championing causes such as climate control and health care reform legislation, which appeal to their environmentally and socially conscious customers and employees.
“There’s an increasing number of issues that are being debated in Washington that affect our users,— said Mistique Cano, a spokeswoman for Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. The company, which first registered an in-house lobbyist in 2007, spent $1.08 million on lobbying in the third quarter of this year, a $130,000 jump from the second quarter and a $200,000 bump from what it spent in the first three months.
The search engine giant has also employed well-connected help. One of its in-house lobbyists, Pablo Chavez, previously worked for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former presidential contender and past chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Another staff lobbyist, Seth Webb, was a top aide to the House Republican Conference. To handle energy issues the company also recently hired Harry Wingo, who had worked for the Senate Commerce Committee.
Earlier this month, Google brought on net neutrality expert Frannie Wellings, most recently a telecom adviser to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) on the Commerce Committee.
The company also retains a number of outside firms with strong Democratic ties, including the Podesta Group.
Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is a frequent flier to Washington, D.C., where he is backing efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to devise rules on net neutrality. Those rules would prevent Internet providers from deciding what content to pass on to their customers. Despite Google’s increased presence in Washington, Schmidt has voiced wariness of what might happen here.
Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said that many new ventures’ initial approach to lobbying is to “dip your feet in the water— by working with professional or trade associations that already have contacts in Washington.
But after a while, he said, these companies see it as more cost-effective to open their own offices in the nation’s capital.
Pinkham added that many of these younger companies learned their lesson from Microsoft, which for years ignored Washington and then found itself the target of an antitrust action by the Justice Department.
GoDaddy.com, which sells Internet domains, opened an office in D.C. four years ago because the Arizona company wanted to familiarize lawmakers with what it did.
Martha Johnston, GoDaddy.com’s director of government relations, said most people only knew of the company because of its racy Super Bowl ads.
She said the company’s provocative name did initially open doors on Capitol Hill.
“How can you pass up a meeting with someone named GoDaddy?— she said. “It gets a smile on the face and they say, What is GoDaddy?’ —
Johnston, who previously worked for the Federal Communications Commission, said the company has sought to counter the notion that companies such as hers allow pornography on the Internet and backed legislation that helps the Department of Justice fight Internet child pornography. In the third quarter of this year, GoDaddy.com spent $194,000 on lobbying, up from $179,000 in the second quarter and $165,000 in the first quarter.
There have been increasing rumblings in Congress about online privacy issues. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, recently solicited input from Google, Yahoo and Facebook about ways to safeguard users’ privacy.
But Sparapani said that the privacy complaints are anecdotal. While Facebook was originally the domain of the young, the lobbyist said that even veteran lawmakers in Congress are now clicking onto the popular social network. He predicted during the midterm elections next year, many will have campaign Facebook pages.
“You’d be shocked,— he said. “It really has permeated the consciousness of Congress.—
Facebook’s Washington office now consists of Sparapani, another staffer and an intern. However, Sparapani said it was inevitable that the lobbying staff would increase.
At the same time he suggested that Facebook could doom much of the lobbying profession as the public and various groups become more comfortable communicating with their lawmakers directly through the online social network.
“An individual citizen can use Facebook to engage in conversation with people in government,— he said. “You may no longer need a lobbyist.—