Facebook ambassadors: Countries should send diplomats to the social-media giant.

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May 27 2011 12:31 PM

Mr. Ambassador, Meet President Zuckerberg

Facebook is sending diplomats to foreign countries. Now foreign countries should send diplomats to Facebook.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

On Sunday, Facebook announced that it would be putting together a global team of quasi-diplomats, called "policy directors," to represent the company in various countries around the globe. The job descriptions for these positions are more or less the same. The envoy to India should "actively promote of the uses of Facebook with policymakers and influencers in both electoral and governing bodies," while the emissary to Italy will "monitor legislation and regulatory matters affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges." (A job listing for the digital elephant in the room—China—is conspicuously absent.)

"It's important that we have a presence, so people can have a direct line into Facebook," a Facebook spokeswoman said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. "You limit the scope for misunderstandings." That article also pointed out that Google did the same thing back in 2006: "Was it useful? Totally," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of global public policy from 2004 to 2009. "You literally build a foreign service for the company, people whose mission it is to represent the company outwardly, but also to translate the policy environment back into the company."

When I read heard this, my first thought went back to Lift, an international tech conference I'd attended in Geneva earlier this year. Wired UK editor-at-large Ben Hammersley gave a talk there in which he argued that nation-states—especially the smaller and midsized countries without big-budget foreign ministries—should, instead of sending an ambassador to, for example, the Maldives (sorry, Maldives!), send one to Facebook instead.

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"Why should there by an ambassador to Facebook? Because that's where the people are," Hammersley told me this week. And he's absolutely right. Facebook loves to tout the fact that it has "more than 500 million active users." As many people have pointed out, if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world by population, just above the United States.

In some ways, Facebook already resembles a nation-state. The company, which is moving from Palo Alto to a major complex in Menlo Park, Calif., has assets it wants to protect. Facebook makes money by selling ads against all the data we supply about ourselves. Just as the United States wants to protect American companies so they can pay taxes, hire employees, and contribute to the nation's wealth, Facebook wants to guard its ownership of user data to protect its profits. And it has  already essentially recognized Kosovo as a country by listing it as a country for users from the region, despite the fact that two-thirds of the United Nations General Assembly member states haven't.

All the regions and countries that Facebook wants to target, ranging from Scandinavia to New Zealand, should each immediately reciprocate and begin planning to send their own chargé d ' affaires to present their credentials to Mark Zuckerberg. Then they would devote their time to promoting their national interests to the company. An obvious application, for example, would be adapting Facebook's interface into more languages. While the company currently operates in a bunch of languages, ranging from Frisian to Thai, it is still sorely lacking in African languages. Senegal's envoys, for example, could lobby for more Wolof content, while their Haitian counterparts could argue for increased Kreyòl.

"In terms of public diplomacy, why not?" said Christopher Hughes, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, when I proposed the idea. (Hughes is not the Facebook co-founder of the same name.) "In a way, most states are already putting parts of their diplomatic corps to use the Internet and to use technology to promote their own message. […] In a way, this would make it easier for smaller states to do what bigger states are doing."

Of course, there's an official difference between these hypothetical ambassadors to Facebook and actual diplomats, who are recognized and protected by Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. But there are already gray areas for entities that aren't widely considered sovereign nations. "Taiwan is an interesting example -- it's not recognized by most states," Hughes said.. "If they can [participate in diplomacy], why can't Facebook?"

There's already some sense in the diplomatic community that a nation's Web presence is something to guard and protect. Over the last two years, with Hillary Clinton at the helm of the State Department, the U.S. has expanded its own "21 st Century Statecraft," with Obama ' s Persian - subtitled messages to the Iranian people and official State Department Twitter accounts in Portuguese, Arabic and other languages. Ambassador John Limbert, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran (and a former U.S. Embassy hostage in Tehran) told me this week that adopting these tools should already be part of a nation's diplomatic toolkit.  "Presumably, if a country's diplomatic service is doing its job, it will have tech-savvy people in its midst who, unlike people of my generation, will understand this stuff much better," he said.

When I ran the idea by David Edelstein, a professor and chair of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, however, he was not enthused.

"If you were a small or medium-sized country, what would you get by sending your diplomats to Facebook?" he asked. "It's not like sending them to Ford to get them to build a factory in your country. To me, that's a tough question to answer, exactly what they would hope to get out of that diplomacy." But he did see value in diplomatic relations going the other way, with Facebook sending representatives to foreign countries. "It could smooth the road to some of these legal and privacy issues before they become crises," he said. "That surely could be beneficial. Whether that requires standing diplomatic presences or not is probably not the extent you need to go. But some kind of regular consultation with countries in which they're operating would probably be in everybody's interest."

In a way, it's already happening. For the last five years, the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale,Calif., home of Yahoo, has been working with representatives from Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Malaysia, and Singapore to create "productive relationships that have resulted in increased international exposure for the respective countries and their high tech companies."

Future ambassadors to Facebook take note: It's only 13.5 miles up Highway 101 from Sunnyvale to Menlo Park.

Cyrus Farivar is a technology journalist and is the author of TheInternetofElsewhere, about the history and effects of the Internet in four countries around the world: South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran.