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Did Facebook Play Favorites with Obama?

BY Editors | Monday, June 4 2007

Imagine this scenario: One day, retail giant Wal-Mart decides that it’s going to open up a section of all of its stores to products devised by outside suppliers, as long as they meet some internal company standards for inclusion. They call this new service, “Wal-Mart Platform.” In advance of the launch of this new marketing opportunity, Wal-Mart quietly invites a bunch of companies as well as individual entrepreneurs to get in before the start, so that on launch day they have an impressive array of prominent participants. A section of Wal-Mart Platform is for causes, but they only invite one presidential campaign in early.

If this really happened, would it be ethical? Would the Federal Election Commission deem it legal? Would campaigns from both ends of the political spectrum complain?

Although this is a fictional scenario, the giant social networking site Facebook engaged in something like it in the last couple of weeks, raising serious questions about how a private, but massively used, platform should behave in the brave new world of online politics.

Last week’s launch of Facebook’s Platform, which enables outside developers to build mini-applications that plug into Facebook’s API, excited those of us who look for ways to make politics more accessible through technology. Given that Facebook has more than 20 million members, is growing by 150,000 a day, and members spend an average of 20 minutes a day on the site, anything that might make Facebook more open to political collaboration is bound to be significant. So far, the Obama campaign is the first and only campaign to develop their own application on Platform, and questions are being raised about whether Facebook gave it special access to the API prior to Platform’s launch, and failed to notify the other campaigns about its availability.

The Launch of Platform
Facebook Platform lets users add applications like iLike to their Facebook profiles, opening up a previously closed system to third-party developers. (iLike lets you add your favorite songs to your profile; the tool has been added by nearly a million users in just under one week.) Since every time a Facebook user makes a change to their own profile, their friends learn of that change on their own profiles, ideas and widgets spread virally on Facebook faster than almost anywhere else. There’s potential for a host of uses, including building and using applications that help people promote issues and organize around causes or candidates.

TechPresident’s Alan Rosenblatt took an early look at the new feature and the Obama application, which allows Facebook members to see new videos and messages from the campaign and share them with their Facebook friends, on the day it went public, and he was impressed. As Rick Klau of Feedburner pointed out in a contemporaneous post, the app adds a significant amount of value to the Obama campaign. “If you’re interested in exposing your network of friends to info about Barack, the campaign is making it a one-click affair that greatly simplifies the redistribution of campaign info,” he wrote.

facebook and obama

While this isn’t the most revolutionary thing on Facebook, it heralds a new era for the political uses of Facebook. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Facebook is the feed; whenever someone posts an item, joins a group, or tries out a new application, her social network gets notified about it. If they’re interested in joining a group or adding an application it’s a one or two click process. This simplicity helped groups like the One Million Strong for Barack group to grow exponentially, and it’s what explains iLike’s explosive growth.

Including Obama, Excluding the Rest
But when Platform launched, Obama was the only candidate with an application. Why didn’t John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Ron Paul, or anyone else get in on the possibility of reaching 20 million or more Facebook users and potential voters? Almost all of the candidates have Facebook profiles, MySpace pages, and YouTube channels, yet Obama was the only candidate with an application on Platform’s opening day. While these applications aren’t that difficult to make and might take about eight hours to build, they aren’t something a coder puts together in an afternoon. This means that they had knowledge of Platform before it launched and had been given access to Facebook's API in time to build an application, yet it’s clear from our reporting that the other campaigns weren’t contacted. Why wouldn’t Facebook offer this opportunity to all of the campaigns?

The other campaigns found out about Platform’s with the rest of us, on Friday, May 25. If Facebook let the Obama campaign in but kept all of the other campaigns out, this was a serious breach of trust. Tim Tagaris, who is part of the Internet team for Chris Dodd, said he found out about Platform from TechPresident. “They never reached out to us,” he said. “Every communication we’ve done with Facebook has been us reaching out to them through regular contact forms on their site.” Christian Ferry, eCampaign Director for McCain ‘08, told me that while they intend to build an application, they “have not heard anything from Facebook” either. From our conversations with other campaigns it’s become apparent that this was the pattern across the board — Facebook did no outreach to any campaigns but Obama’s.

Chris Kelly, the chief privacy officer at Facebook, told us via email that “the developer API has been available on the web since September 2006 (the f8 launch was the full formal launch of Facebook Platform, not of the API itself), and we’ve had a number of conversations with many campaigns over the intervening months about how they can use the developer API and Facebook Platform.” However, most developers weren’t informed about Platform until it launched on Friday, May 25th, so they couldn’t have developed applications for it beforehand; again, none of the campaigns we talked to said they’d been contacted about Platform.

A Hughes Connection?
The fact that Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, is working on the Obama campaign might have something to do with it. In writing up platform’s launch, Chris Wilson of USNews.com talked to Hughes last week and wrote that “the Illinois senator had a major advantage on this front in the form of staffer Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook who still serves as a consultant for the site.” And Amy Schatz, in her recent profile of Hughes for the Wall Street Journal, listed the Obama Facebook application as an example of the work Hughes and other Obama staffers are doing.

The Obama campaign demurs when asked about when Facebook gave it access to their API. “We are fortunate to have Chris and the incredible skill set he brings to the campaign on our team,” it said in a statement. “The Obama campaign produced the tools ourselves, followed the guidelines set out by Facebook and look forward to welcoming more friends to our network.”

Although Facebook has supported profiles for most of the candidates, apparently it intends to step much more directly into the political arena. According to a email memo sent out to the campaigns after Platform was launched, it is encouraging all campaigns to develop applications for Platform, and is currently building “US Politics” and “Canadian Politics” applications that will house all politicians’ profiles that will enable users to get updates from the candidates and allow them to advertise a candidate on their profile (Newsvine just launched it’s own application on Platform that can do just that). It will be adding more political features throughout the summer.

Violating FEC Rules?
If Facebook invited only the Obama campaign to contribute an application before it made Platform public, and didn’t inform any other campaigns about Platform, it may have made an illegal in-kind donation to Obama. Corporations are prohibited from making direct contributions to political campaigns; to do so, they must create a separate PAC through which to contribute.

One election law expert we spoke to said that if it can be determined that Facebook gave the campaign something of value it would constitute a breach of FEC regulations. The question is, how do we determine the value of this kind of donation? What is the value of giving Obama first dig at the 20-plus million users of Facebook? As we found out during the recent controversy over Obama’s MySpace page, it isn’t easy to define the value of a list of people. Nor is it clear that the FEC should be somehow trying to regulate online social networks in the same way that campaign finance law regulates large direct political contributions. In the long run, Facebook's Platform clearly can do a lot to expand participation in politics, so the last thing we want is a heavy-handed FEC smothering such experiments. But there is a clear benefit to being the only political campaign application available on Platform’s launch, and to being the only campaign visible to millions of Facebook users on the day the site got a huge burst of attention online.

In the last election Amazon.com turned over part of its homepage to enable small donations to any of the the presidential candidates; it didn’t favor any particular candidate. If it had favored a candidate, we can be sure that an uproar would have followed. It looks like Facebook is trying to follow in Amazon's footsteps, and judging from the fact that Facebook has already opened Platform to all candidates (and everyone else), and that it intends to become a major online political platform, we don’t think Facebook meant its invitation to Obama as a statement of political support. But it’s likely that the company made a mistake by being too casual about Chris Hughes’ relationship to both camps, and didn’t realize the consequences of creating the appearance of a conflict, as well as a potential campaign violation.

Ethical Consequences and Maintaining Trust
This episode shows once again that we are mapping uncharted territory. Sites like Facebook or MySpace may be private entities, but as millions of people spend more time on them, they are becoming quasi-public forums too. When Moveon accuses MySpace of censoring some forms of political speech, it is raising a variation on this same theme. Clearly, online social networks should take extreme care to provide a neutral, non-partisan platform that gives users and candidates of all stripes equal access to technology and information. In the Obama-Facebook case, it appears Facebook didn’t. Despite being a private company, Facebook is becoming a kind of one-stop-shop for the social web and the onus is on it — now more than ever — to be politically neutral. If it doesn’t live up to that standard, it risks losing our trust and, eventually, our allegiance and membership. Not to mention those prized advertising dollars.