Facebook in Hiring Spree for Washington Lobbyists Amid Scandal

 
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Facebook in Hiring Spree for Washington Lobbyists Amid Scandal

Facebook is on a hiring spree in Washington as the social network bulks up its ranks of lobbyists in the midst of a privacy scandal that cuts to the heart of its business model.

As a chorus of calls mounts for answers about its data practices, Facebook is looking to hire at least 11 people for policy-related positions in Washington, according to its website. The company started hiring new lobbyists last fall after revelations Russians exploited its platform to help elect President Donald Trump.

On Monday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, became the latest lawmaker to call for Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress. The US Federal Trade Commission took the unusual step of confirming it's investigating Facebook's privacy policies following revelations about Cambridge Analytica's use of its data. The National Association of Attorneys General also wants to hear from Zuckerberg.

The calls for Zuckerberg to testify in Washington grew louder after a series of briefings by lower company executives last week left senior lawmakers dissatisfied. Commerce Chairman John Thune, Mark Warner, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also called on Zuckerberg to appear.

Zuckerberg last week suggested he'd be willing to come and answer questions if he determines he is the right person to appear. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, sent an invitation Monday asking Zuckerberg to answer questions at an April 10 hearing. He also invited Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to appear before his panel to discuss data privacy.

Facebook hasn't answered Grassley yet. But the company is struggling to stave off a barrage of criticism that it hasn't done enough to address revelations that Cambridge Analytica, which worked with Trump's campaign, syphoned data from some 50 million Facebook users as it built an election-consulting company that boasted it could sway voters in contests all over the world.

Facebook has lost about $73 billion (roughly Rs. 4.75 lakh crores) in market value in the past six trading days. Since March 16, the stock has fallen 14 percent and is on track for its worst month in four years. The shares rebounded from earlier losses to end up 0.4 percent at $160.06 Monday.

Last week, Facebook officials appeared unprepared and uncertain during briefings with congressional staff to answer questions about how big the problem is, according to staffers who attended the meetings.

Company executives told the aides in multiple briefings that they didn't know how many copies of user data similar to that obtained by Cambridge Analytica have been made, how widely disseminated those duplicates might be and who has that information, said the staffers, who asked not to be identified because the briefings weren't public.

The key issue raised in the briefings was whether there might be others that had access to the data that Cambridge Analytica obtained beginning in 2014 after entering into a commercial venture with a firm called Global Science Research, which initially got a smaller amount of user data under the guise of academic research.

Zuckerberg echoed in a round of interviews last week that the company was looking into the scope of the problem and didn't yet know what it would find. He added that Facebook has a responsibility to make sure it can secure the data.

In the briefings, the Facebook officials acknowledged the company doesn't have a system to track whether a user that had promised to delete profile information had actually duplicated it and said there's no follow-up procedure or enforcement mechanism to lock down the data.

Congressional staffers came away from the briefings doubting that the company could provide a full accounting of who might have access to the data. Facebook wouldn't disclose the names of the company officials that carried out the briefings, which were with staffers of the House Energy and Commerce, the Judiciary and Intelligence committee, and the Senate Commerce committee.

Staffers also asked the Facebook officials questions about who owns data on the social network and about the policies, procedures and terms of service now in effect and what Facebook will do next.

Among the hires Facebook is seeking to make are privacy and public policy managers, a government outreach manager, associate general counsel positions, and a couple of policy managers to help draft positions on tech and video policy issues. Some of the postings say the positions could be based in either Washington or the company's Menlo Park, California headquarters. It wasn't clear when the jobs were posted or whether they are new positions. A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on the policy positions the company is currently trying to fill.

The company ranks third among top tech companies in Washington lobbying spending after Alphabet's Google and Amazon.com and employs about 40 internal and external lobbyists. The company disclosed spending $11.5 million on lobbying in 2017, up from $8.7 million the year before.

In the days last fall before Facebook officials were called in to testify on the Russian campaign meddling, the company hired three lobbyists to work on issues that included online advertising and election integrity, according to federal disclosures.

The three lobbyists were David Wade, a former top aide to John Kerry during his tenures in the Senate and at the State Department; Sudafi Henry, who served as Vice President Joe Biden's legislative affairs director; and Luke Albee, a former chief of staff to Senator Mark Warner. They all started lobbying for Facebook in October, according to congressional filings.

It wasn't clear if any of them participated in the congressional briefings last week.

Albee started lobbying for the company on Oct. 30 - two days before his former boss, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, grilled Colin Stretch, the company's general counsel, in a hearing. Henry and Albee disclosed lobbying on a range of issues including consumer privacy, data security, online advertising and disclosure while Wade listed "congressional investigation" as the issue he would address for the company.

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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