World and Nation

Facebook prepares for lobbying push in Washington

Facebook is hoping to do something better and faster than any other technology start-up-turned-Internet superpower.

Befriend Washington.

Facebook has layered its executive, legal, policy, and communications ranks with high-powered politicos from both parties, beefing up its firepower for future battles in Washington and beyond. There’s Sheryl Sandberg, the former Clinton administration who is chief operating officer, and Ted Ullyot, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is general counsel, among others. The latest candidate is Robert Gibbs, President Barack Obama’s former White House press secretary, whom Facebook is trying to lure to its communications team.

With good reason, political and legal analysts say. Barely seven years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook, as much as any other company, is redefining the notion of privacy and transforming communications, media and advertising in the Internet age.

While the company has come under fire for a series of privacy stumbles, it largely remains a darling of politicians — even earning a glowing mention in the State of the Union. But Facebook has watched the missteps of Microsoft and Google in Washington, and knows that its current skirmishes are merely a prelude to looming clashes over its influence on the economic and social Web. And so it is building a stalwart defense, moving at broadband speed from start-up to realpolitik strategist.

“Information is the gold or the oil of the economy in the information age,” said Paul M. Schwartz, a law professor and expert in information technology at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Schwartz said Facebook seemed to have learned quickly that demands for regulation would pile up, not just from users and advocacy groups, but from competitors.

“What they’re doing is pragmatic, and it’s pragmatic to do it sooner rather than later,” he said.

Facebook declined to comment on its conversations with Gibbs, who is considering a position in Silicon Valley, not Washington.

The company said it understood the importance of having a Washington presence, mainly so it could explain its social networking service and its many features and privacy policies to lawmakers and regulators. But it played down the importance of having connections to both sides of the political spectrum.

Still, some privacy advocates are fretting over Facebook’s new hires. These critics say the company’s growing Washington connections will dampen reasonable criticisms about some Facebook policies.