This evening, TechCrunch's Michael Arrington ran a rumor that had been circulating from Silicon Valley to DC and back again the last week or so. Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly will likely run for California State Attorney General as a Democrat in 2010.
Arrington notes that:
This puts Facebook in an awkward position, as Kelly has led the team that represents the company in their ongoing negotiations with Attorneys General around the U.S. They’ll need to hire a replacement for Kelly, fast.
As Facebook grows it continues to draw fire from the government and various privacy advocates, and things are going to get worse over time, not better. Concerns range from too much private information getting into the hands of third parties to Facebook becoming a platform for the spread of computer viruses. Reports of terrorist and hate groups using the site to draw recruits have recently popped up. And Facebook, like many online services, wages a relentless war against spammers.
Anyone who knows anything about tech policy knows that Facebook's issues are only going to increase. I had thought the hiring of Sheryl Sandberg would bring a sharper policy focus that keeps the company from getting battered in reaction to every new piece of state legislation, outrage from a British MP or negative story. A big step forward was made when Elliot Schrage came from Google to run communications and government affairs. However, almost as soon as he joined Facebook, Schrage took on the additional big job of running the company's platform.
This means that in all this time that Facebook has been a major consumer force and has, conversely, run into privacy, child protection and content protection issues worldwide, the company has had a single full-time government affairs and public policy person. And, that person is apparently going to take a leave of absence from the company in the coming months.
So, you can look at Kelly in wonder and wonder. How the heck could he handle all that on his own?! (Though, he notably had strong consulting help from those who know their way around the FTC and recently was blessed with top-notch PR support that also came from Google). Here is a guy, btw, who would seemingly be at a privacy conference in Sydney one day and then speak at a luncheon in Brussels the next. He's constantly moving and making the case why Facebook has the most secure, transparent and safe social networking platform on the market.
It will be very interesting to see how the Facebook internal policy structure evolves because of this. Slowdowns in hiring notwithstanding, my bet is that this forces either new or pent-up demand for a more typical corporate public policy structure for the company. That means, at the very least, senior government affairs people in DC and Europe, a state government affairs person and a potential new privacy officer. And, this demand may not just come from inside, but also from government officials, NGOs and other industry players who can only get so much from one busy chief privacy officer and won't get anything from a company with no full time policy representative.
TechCrunch mentions that:
Three other (Democrats) have already declared their candidacy (for AG), including San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, Torrence assemblyman Ted Liu and Pittsburg assemblyman Gerald Canciamilla.
To date, Harris has gotten the most chatter from Sacramento insiders as they dine at Frank Fats. She is the first woman to serve as the San Francisco's district attorney, as well as the first African American woman to serve as D.A. for any California city. Harris worked early in Iowa for the President-elect and was one of the campaign's top California organizers. However, law and order and San Francisco might seem to be an oxymoron to some in the non-coastal California regions.
The question is whether these same voters will embrace a guy who, depending on your perspective, is symbolic of a medium that massively enhances your friendships and connects you with valuable knowledge or is representative of a thing that your kids (or grandkids) use to waste time and get into trouble.
It will be fascinating to see how much Kelly either tries to tie himself to the powerful force that is behind his employer or attempts to separate himself to focus on the more typical issues that the other candidates and nearly every other AG candidate in recent history have centered on. My guess is that he will try to evoke the ethos of democratic involvement of the masses through the Internet, but then quickly pivot to the classic law and order fair.
Regardless, Kelly's run will only bring more attention to Facebook's policy issues. We're hopeful that they are ready for it.