Will Facebook Privacy Ties Wreck Chris Kelly's AG Campaign?

Chris Kelly claims he's not being private about his Chief Privacy Officer gig at Facebook
These days, touting the title "Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook" on one's resume must feel a bit like being the Head of Safety for BP or Lead Acting Instructor at the William Shatner School of Drama.

Following policy changes at Facebook that made it far easier for data miners, voyeurs, or prying bosses to find your most compromising information, earnest online privacy advocates pilloried the king of the social networking websites. So, it warrants mentioning that the maiden TV ad for would-be Attorney General -- and, yes, former Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook -- Chris Kelly doesn't mention the P-Word at all.

Instead, the narrator notes that "As top legal counsel at Facebook, Chris Kelly worked with all 50 Attorneys General to crack down on online sexual predators." That sounds downright heroic, and ought to earn a copywriter a promotion. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris -- one of Kelly's Democratic rivals in the AG race -- has accused him of disingenuously attempting to distance himself from his Facebook past.

Is that so? And is this a killer for the little-known candidate who's poured nearly $10 million* of his own money into a longshot race?

We're glad you asked. 

It turns out that if Kelly is attempting to opt out of his Facebook privacy past -- he's not doing a very good job of it. Yes, his TV commercial lists him as "top counsel" -- as does a May 5 press release about sexual predator laws. Yet he still mentions his Chief Privacy Officer role in a May 4 release and, not insignificantly, his official bio. He also advertised himself as the former CPO of Facebook for political meet-and-greets in both Northern and Southern California in the days after Facebook's privacy settings became national news. He's doing so for pending events, too. 

Kelly hadn't returned our calls as of press time, but his spokeswoman, Robin Swanson, said any accusations he was attempting to tiptoe away from his past were "ridiculous." Kelly was both general counsel and Chief Privacy Officer for Facebook, she notes, and they've used both terms plenty. "When it's apt to descibe the work he did as general counsel, a lawyer, we describe it that way," she said. "When we want to push E-STOP aganist online predators, we describe him" as Chief Privacy Officer.

It warrants mentioning that Facebook's controversial changes occured after Kelly left the company. But perception is often reality -- and as "the Facebook guy," it's already evident he'll face some degree of blowback.

The situation leaves Kelly forced to do some "explaining," noted political consultant Jim Ross. "And there's a great saying of politics which is 'When you're explaining, you're losing.' That's his problem, I guess."

But politicos didn't see this as being a back-breaker for Kelly. "I don't think this is ultimately going to be an issue that'll win or lose the campaing for Chris -- or for Kamala for that matter," said consultant Enrique Pearce. This might be a big, big deal for a number of tech-obsessed bloggers, Pearce continued. But most voters don't fall into that category.

"It's not like Kamala Harris has the resources to go on TV and hit him with it," said Ross. "This is not going to get any real traction unless something big happens at Facebook." By "something big," by the way, Ross is talking about, say, a virus being spread via Farmville -- making Facebook executives about as popular as mandatory colonoscopies.

Kelly's Facebook ties are "a headache," continues Ross. "But it's not a fundamental flaw."

Update, 3:40 p.m.: Chris Kelly returned our call. The money quotes:

  • "I think voters still have an overwhelmingly positive impression of Facebook overall and understand companies can make mistakes. If a company makes a mistake after I left, I'm not sure that'll be associated with me."

  • "One of the things Facebook is well-known for is iteration and change. I think the company has made decisions over time that will evolve. ... To the extent the company would move away from the idea that people have control over their personal information, that is a dangerous maneuver to try to make."

  • "I've made my position clear that Facebook, like every other company, has to adhere to the promises it's made over time. ... Whatever my political opponents want to make of that, good luck with it."
*An earlier version of this story undercounted the amount of money Kelly has contributed to his own campaign.
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