Facebook’s Joel Kaplan: Policy-Making from the White House to Social Media

Joel Kaplan discussed his former role as deputy chief of staff of policy under President Bush and his current position as vice president of US Public Policy for Facebook at the Sanford School.

Kaplan has worked in a variety of capacities as an American public policy strategist. After serving in the Marines, Kaplan briefly pursued a career in law before entering public service. He was named deputy chief of staff of policy under President George W. Bush in 2006 and served until 2009. Kaplan’s responsibilities included presenting issues to the president in a timely manner; managing policy development and decision-making, and serving as a liaison among cabinet members.

During his time at the White House, “The presidency was in distress,” said Kaplan. President Bush’s public approval sank as a result his perceived response to Hurricane Katrina, the political crisis surrounding the “Dubai Ports” incident and the war in Iraq.

“Any modern presidency faces so many issues that if the chief of staff isn’t managing them in a timely way, time will make those decisions for him. As a member of the president’s staff, you must preserve the president’s options and decisions,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan thought the administration handled the financial crisis “exceptionally well.” President Bush made the difficult decision to bail out big banks and corporations even though it was against his free-market philosophy.

“It was a terribly unpopular thing to do, but these actions saved the global economy,” Kaplan said. “If you ask most economists, it was the single most important thing. He took that money and injected it into the banks, which increased stability and confidence in the banks, and that’s what stopped the panic.”

As vice president of public policy for Facebook, Kaplan currently works to ensure that policy makers understand the risks associated with their decisions. With nearly 85% of its users living abroad, a corporation like Facebook needs representatives in government, explained Kaplan.

“[Facebook] is a big part of people’s lives…. If the government is going to be regulating that company, it’s important to have somebody who can help ensure that they know what they’re doing. I think Facebook was really ahead of the curve in recognizing that,” said Kaplan.

Recent revelations of the National Security Agency’s alleged surveillance and penetration of data from Internet sources such as Facebook was a “really tough issue” for the company. It triggered an important debate between privacy and security.

Facebook had three primary concerns with the initial assertions made by Edward Snowden’s first leak, which Kaplan described as inaccurate.

The first was the assumption that Facebook had willingly provided the government access to its users’ private information. Kaplan explained  that access was not voluntarily given to the NSA but was in compliance with the mandates of the government.

The second inaccuracy was that the NSA had garnered direct access to Facebook’s servers.

The third was that the NSA had gained access to the private information of millions of people, while in reality, out of Facebook’s 1.2 billion users, only a fraction—between 5 and 6,000—were actually affected by NSA surveillance.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle Facebook confronted was its inability to communicate the truth throughout the entire ordeal.

Kaplan said that Facebook officials persisted for five months before gaining permission to comment on the issue. Clarifying these misconceptions not only benefited Facebook but also the NSA, by revealing that the situation was not as invasive as people had originally thought.

“The industry had to push really hard for transparency. Our business is built on trust. It’s entirely built around what people voluntarily decide to share. If [users] suddenly feel that they’re no longer in control, they’re not going to share their information on Facebook,” said Kaplan.

 “We need to find a balance between privacy principles and our need for security and that can only happen through informed debate,” said Kaplan.

In collaboration with other companies, Facebook contributed suggestions for policy reform, which included limits on government surveillance through “substantive” privacy and procedural protections.

Kaplan said that the NSA acted in accordance with the laws mandated by the administration and Congress.

 “People all over the world are using [communication] services that are all based in the US. The intelligence community has taken advantage of that fact,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan said that in order to put an end to this situation, the US must once again be viewed as a “steward of trust.”

“The US has the primary responsibility of protecting the security of Americans and its allies, but it’s not the only responsibility the president has to balance… These US based Internet companies, being the means of communication for the entire world, are a major economic asset,” Kaplan said.

The event was sponsored by the program in American Grand Strategy and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.