The Facebook PAC: When Social Media Discovers It's Big Business

A season of political moves should remind us of the corporate interests of the new Internet utilities

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On Monday, Facebook filed papers to launch FB PAC. The political action committee is designed, said company spokesperson Andrew Noyes in a statement, to "give our employees a way to make their voice heard in the political process by supporting candidates who share our goals of promoting the value of innovation to our economy while giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." The news burned up Twitter, and more than one tweeter shared the sentiment of @angeleenie, "Ok, this makes me angry." All of which raises the question, is the idea of a new Facebook PAC really such a big deal?

No, not really. And also yes, a little.

In the 'no' column: big companies regularly launch these political vehicles. "Companies -- even entire industries -- have held out against 'playing the Washington game,'" Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told The Atlantic, "but sometimes think the better of it."

A perpetual lack of access and legislative success will do that to you, said Krumholz -- and Internet companies are no exception.

Google started its NetPAC in 2006, and, according to OpenSecrets.org, in the last cycle donated more than $330,000, spread roughly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. (Queens Democrat Joe Crowley got Google money, for example, but so did Obama thorn Darrell Issa, the Republican chair of the House's oversight committee.) Amazon's PAC gave nearly $190,000 to candidates in 2010, and eBay's just slightly less.

Vint Cerf, one of the "fathers of the Internet" who now serves as Google's chief Internet evangelist, argued in an email that this is a natural reaction to lawmakers who produce laws that can harm the tech giants. "In such a situation," wrote Cerf, "one is interested in supporting candidates who are known to be better informed and sympathetic to the conditions these companies face."

But the emergence of a Facebook PAC is worth noting for at least one reason. It's a reminder that Facebook, as well as Google, is a big corporation with corporate interests, when both have spent the last several years reveling in the conventional Washington wisdom that these companies simply are the Internet.

Look back at the last six months alone.

In April, President Obama traveled to Palo Alto to participate in a Facebook "townhall" moderated by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, where both Facebook employees and Facebook users submitted questions for Obama. That session seemed to kick off a bipartisan social media frenzy. In July, Twitter's chairman, Jack Dorsey, was invited to the White House to lead a question-and-answer session where questions for Obama were plucked from the tweet stream. Last Thursday, Google was FoxNews' co-host for the Republican presidential debate. Yesterday, the same day the Facebook PAC news broke, Obama participated in a last-minute forum at LinkedIn headquarters moderated by CEO Jeff Weiner. Also Monday, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg led a morning Q&A session with the "Young Guns," "Republican congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan. If Sandberg was tired, that's understandable -- the night before, she and her husband had thrown a $35,800-per-couple campaign fundraiser for Obama at their Atherton, Calif., home.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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