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Facebook To Launch Global Policy Offensive (And How It Might Start Looking Like McDonald's)

Do you want censorship with that?
Do you want censorship with that?
There have been calls in the past for Facebook to develop a foreign policy. With an announcement that the company is hiring global policy directors, it seems to be listening.

From the

As part of this effort, Facebook is hiring policy directors for the Middle East, Britain, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Germany, Central and Eastern Europe and other countries and regions. Among their duties, the policy directors will be Facebook's primary contact with foreign government officials and politicians. That will be especially critical in places like Europe, where regulators are scrutinizing the privacy and data-handling practices of Google (GOOG) and other U.S. Internet companies.

In recent years, Facebook has run aground on local laws of the countries it operates in. Last year, Pakistan banned Facebook on the grounds of blasphemy after the popular "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day" group outraged local sentiments. With the Arab Spring, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have become increasingly wary of Facebook as a platform for activists.

In more democratic countries, Facebook’s headaches tend to be less about freedom of expression and more about privacy -- in particular what Facebook allows third parties to do with its members’ data. (Europe’s privacy laws are among the strictest in the world.)

The recent super-injunctions case in the United Kingdom has shown how dramatically the media and legal landscape have been changed by social media. British media are gagged from revealing the name of a footballer who allegedly had an affair, despite the footballer’s name being all over Twitter. The lawyers acting on behalf of the footballer have requested user account information from Twitter about the original tweeter. As “The Guardian” pointed out, it’s not Tahrir Square, but it is a good microcosmic example of how the media gatekeepers have changed and the resulting transnational battle for information.

Facebook’s hope is that the crack team of policy pros will navigate those turbulent policy waters of privacy and freedom of expression. With its 600 million members (twice the population of the United States), Facebook has often been likened to a state -- its citizens bound not by constitutional laws, but by its terms of service. In more restrictive media environments, Facebook has become a surrogate for the state media: an illicit gatekeeper for otherwise censored political, social, and cultural information.

Increasingly, however, Facebook will find that surrogate role difficult as countries become attuned to its potential dangers (for them). For Facebook, the bottom line is: comply with local regulations or stay out of the market.

In an April “Wall Street Journal” piece on Facebook’s lobbying efforts, Adam Conner, a lobbyist, said: "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

For a lobbyist with an eye on appeasing Congressional concerns about American tech companies abroad, it was an unfortunate comment. But it was especially revealing, not so much for its implied paternalism, but more for the a la carte international model Facebook will likely take in the future.

Instead of a state, there is perhaps a better analogy for Facebook’s future model: McDonald’s. With its global operations-local franchise model, there are staples - French fries, Big Mac, Coke, Chicken McNuggets -- but then there are regional variants adjusted to local tastes. So in India, they have the Maharaja Mac, as most Indians don’t eat beef. You can’t get a beer in an American McDonald’s but you can in Germany or the Czech Republic. In Japan, apparently you can get a green-tea milkshake. (John Travolta has a memorable take on this business model.)

That profitable mix of global brand and local products/practice might prove to be too tempting for Facebook. It would mean that country to country, Facebook would be a different beast. It would have the same look and feel -- the staples of design and ad placement -- but other features would be optional. So some countries would have different privacy settings, more restrictive terms of service, say on freedom of expression, on blasphemy, or breast feeding photos etc. Or perhaps in some states there would be limits on the number of people allowed to join a group. Essentially, the future might be: you run your censorship policies the way you want to, but you got to use blue and no pop-up ads, please.

This seems to be consistent with the speculations about Facebook’s likely strategy in China: partnering with the country’s most popular search engine Baidu. It's also consistent with the way in which the Internet continues to fragment into national internets, each with their own distinct content, culture, laws, and technological architecture.

Global corporations operating in local markets always have to bend; the question is how much and where exactly are the red lines. Facebook might be comfortable (or have no choice) adhering to stricter blasphemy laws in Pakistan, but it might not be comfortable handing over user data to authoritarian regimes.

With that in mind, bringing on a new breed of "diplomats" to navigate those cultural, political, and policy minefields seems like a much-needed and smart move. The problem for Facebook is that being a global gatekeeper and dealing with millions of peoples' personal data is a little more challenging than flogging hamburgers.