May 24th, 2011
Signs That Facebook Is Acting Like a Sovereign Nation
In Paris, today, French president Nicolas Sarkozy rubbed shoulders with tech industry superstars, including Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg, for the inaugural eG-8 meeting. The two-day event intends to prime the conversation at the Group of Eight summit set to take place later this week in Normandy. Sarkozy took a hard line in urging governments to better regulate the internet. “Don’t let the revolution that you’ve begun threaten everyone’s basic right to a private life and full autonomy,” he told the conferences attendees. “Full transparency… sooner or later runs into the very principle of individual freedom.”
Facebook saw this coming a mile away. Over the past few months, the Palo Alto company has been hiring out a global policy team to act as ambassadors for Facebook’s interests abroad. “This is the right investment for us to make because we want to have better relationships with regulators and policymakers across Europe and around the world,” Debbie Frost told Silicon Valley’s Mercury News. “It’s important that we have a presence, so people can have a direct line into Facebook.” That presence will span the globe, but the recruiting of directors is assertively focused on Europe and the Middle East. The company wants privacy experts with sterling credentials. “Facebook wants a person comfortable with politicians at the most senior levels of government, who has experience as a media spokesperson, preferably on both radio and TV; and of course, has ‘a passionate belief’ in Facebook,” reports the Mercury News, who are calling the new global team members “diplomats.” The strategy makes sense--over 70 percent of Facebook’s 600 million users live outside the United States.
Part spokesperson, part diplomat, the new role for Facebook highlights how the company is deeply interested in building a rapport with the world’s most influential governments. Similarly, some recent hires in the communications department hint at Facebook’s intentions to cozy up to media outlets with a new journalist outreach program. Facebook is fast becoming the leading source of traffic for news sites, and it’s possible that the social network could require for news organizations to depend on Facebook credits, the social networks burgeoning currency, to purchase content. This model is already in place for Facebook games. Though Facebook denies any intentions of charging for driving traffic, their new journalism program’s point person told Fortune that the credit system was “an interesting idea.”
If this all sounds aggressive, that’s because it is. As Facebook continues to deal with Senate investigations into its privacy practices and attempts to undermine competitors with planted stories, it’s clear that governments and media around the world could stifle the company’s growth with regulations. Any new rules imposed by governments around the world will inevitably hinder Mark Zuckerberg’s quest for world domination, but similarly, a media dependent on Facebook cements the social networks relevancy in shaping the public dialogue. Facebook will conform to China’s censorship laws and has purportedly censored some communications in the Middle East this spring. So far Facebook has cooperated with government investigations; a privacy suit in Germany is the most recent example. Meanwhile, the company’s ethical barometer seems to receive a new challenge weekly.
With its own currency, its own cadre of diplomats and a user base larger than all but two of the world’s nations, Facebook could be its own country. In fact, evidence points to a stark realization that Facebook is already a virtual nation, riddled with challenges and crowded with citizens. All it needs now is a spaceship to fly them to Earth Number Two.