Facebook is creating a team of foreign policy directors to be the face of the social networking site in relations with foreign governments. Facebook membership totals over 600 million people worldwide, and over 70 percent of that membership is outside of the United States, leading to conflicts in different cultural reactions to privacy concerns, censorship, and freedom of expression.
According to Facebook’s website, this new team of “ambassadors” will be stationed in countries from Europe, the Middle East, India, and Australia, and they will be the primary contact for their respective governments. The liaisons between the Palo Alto headquarters and the cultural expectations of Facebook users will be just as important to the company’s operations as it will be to government officials.
Because Facebook’s social network inherently brings with it American ideals of freedom of speech, it is facing increasing restrictions in areas where censorship of ideas is the norm. Without some kind of a presence or mediator to smooth over misunderstandings, Facebook officials fear being regulated to the point of being pushed out of a country. Such mediators will be culturally informed enough to warn of impending conflicts, as well as promote the use of Facebook within their market.
This move has been characterized as a new, private-sector type of Foreign Service, especially as the Internet becomes the thread that binds networks across the globe closer together. With the pivotal role of Facebook in recent uprisings and protests, it seems rational at first to use this language of diplomacy and to view the new “diplomats” as emissaries of open speech in closed countries. However, it could also be just a case of good public relations. The positions require a high degree of language and cultural skills, as well as at least ten years of related government relations experience. It is not unlike anything that any other multinational corporation—including oil companies going back to the 1950s—has done. Google started a similar program back in 2006, but rather than being an emissary for open Internet across the globe, it cooperated with China’s government in establishing restrictions that prevent Chinese users from accessing some information through Google’s search engine. Those who expect Facebook to be a supporter of movements that look to its social network for building support can expect one Internet giant to behave much like another.
While the establishment of foreign policy directors will have an important impact on how Facebook is used in international political events, it cannot realistically become the bastion of free communication that some hope it will. As the Facebook job posting for the Middle East Director of Policy states, the Facebook ambassadors will be “dealing with some of the most interesting public policy challenges of our time,” but they will find they are fighting for the company that signs their paychecks, whether it aligns with the common good or not.