04/25/2011 11:46 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2011

Why Facebook Needs a Foreign Policy

Facebook has appeared less frequently in international political news lately, but in the aftermath of attention the social media site received in the wake of Arab world unrest, they need to get their act together and gird themselves for the next wave.

Facebook's "deer in the headlights" response to calls for it to do more to help protesters in Tunisia and Egypt contrasted starkly with the proactive role of Google, whose employee, Wael Ghonim, went so far as to exhort the masses in Tahrir Square. Why the difference in approach?

For better or worse, Google's "Don't Be Evil" mantra empowers its employees not only to decide how best to react to world events, but also how to shape them. One example was the "speak2tweet" work-around designed by Google engineers for Egyptians in the wake of a Twitter shutdown. Similarly, Google's tools that have sprung up to assist the victims of earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and, in particular, their transparency map of government controls are further evidence of the confidence with which Googlers seek to put "Don't Be Evil" into practice. Hard lessons learned in dealing with Chinese censorship, having a physical presence (people, offices and servers) in many places around the world, and employing a deeper bench of talent in global policy issues have also helped Google navigate the shoals of political risk abroad.

Facebook, like much of Silicon Valley, is full of brilliant engineers, whose talent for innovation is directed toward developing products and seizing markets. They are competitive, accustomed to (justifiably) feeling like the smartest people in the room, and proud of their contributions. What they seem to lack, however, are esteemed colleagues who understand the cultural and political environments into which their products are introduced. What's more, Facebook's public pronouncements often betray their impatience when questioned on these matters.

If they were better at articulating it, Facebook might get away with the following argument: We are a company that offers a service that is governed by rules (e.g. no anonymous profiles) enshrined in a Users Agreement. By asking Facebook to change its rules (for example, to allow activists to have anonymous profiles), critics -- including the U.S. Congress -- are taking the easy way out. The rules that should be changed are those of repressive foreign regimes, not Facebook's. Facebook's responsibility ends with providing the service. Facebook's facilitation of free assembly and free expression has clearly outpaced efforts to strengthen the rights of people around the world to freely assemble and express themselves, but is this Facebook's fault?

At its most benign, this argument translates as "We're just a website." But to the general public and policy makers the argument sounds like "The world just hasn't caught up with us yet." This communications gap has led to such gaffes as asserting that privacy doesn't matter that much, a threat to move Facebook out of the U.S. to avoid its jurisdiction, and refusals to appear at congressional hearings on global internet freedom.

What should Facebook do? First, decide who's in charge. Facebook urgently needs a policy guru who can both reconcile internal conflicts, help their leaders understand how they are coming across, and serve as an appealing and persuasive spokesman to both governments and the media. Second, Facebook needs to engage with a broader circle of stakeholders. These include users, employees, U.S. and foreign governments, policy experts and forums like the Global Network Initiative. This will help them to establish the boundaries of their corporate responsibility. Formulating a policy that balances business goals with unwieldy social impacts will take time and be an ongoing process, a process that needs to be transparent, with results communicated regularly to Facebook's 600 million users -- and to national governments wherever they may log in.

Another point about public perception: any assertion that Facebook lacks resources is trumped by awareness of the billions that investors have poured into the company, just as any assertion that they have no political mission is weakened when they host President Obama for a town hall meeting.

Freedom on the internet is in retreat, as governments become better at imposing controls and using social networks to their own advantage. At the same time, the road that leads through Ukraine (2004), Iran (2009) and the convulsing Arab states of today will surely lead to more political upheavals. A little scenario planning, more dialogue with stakeholders, and a humbler articulation of a flexible foreign policy will help Facebook remain more hero than target.