Facebook's Washington office doesn't offer the comforts of the West Wing, but Joel Kaplan says it's full of true believers, which makes him feel right at home.
"You have this group of really talented, smart, dynamic people here who are working on something because they believe in it," Kaplan tells C&E just about a month into his new job as vice president of U.S. public policy for Facebook. "That's really attractive to me as someone who worked in the White House."
A veteran of former President George W. Bush’s policy team, Kaplan is now tasked with building and maintaining Facebook's relationships with key policymakers on the Hill amidst a burgeoning debate over online security and privacy. It's a debate that has some lawmakers and privacy advocates training a critical eye on the social network, closely watching how it treats the data its site collects on users.
"We think we've got a great story to tell," says Kaplan as we chat in Facebook's new office in downtown D.C. The 8,500-square-foot space is an upgrade from the company's former Washington location—a tiny office perched above a clothing store in Dupont Circle.
There are no individual offices at Facebook, just a series of conference rooms with politically themed names like "Kissing Babies," "On the Record" and "Off the Record." We're sitting in "An Undisclosed Location," where I ask Kaplan to recall his own, rather unlikely, journey to the pinnacle of national politics.
It was just about a week before then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush would accept his party's presidential nomination in Philadelphia that Kaplan decided he was tired of just being a spectator. Fresh off a clerkship on the U.S. Supreme Court, the Harvard Law grad and newfound Republican called Bush policy adviser Ted Cruz looking for a job.
"He told me, 'If you can get down here by the weekend and you're willing to work for free, we can find something for you,'" Kaplan recalls.
He went from the convention in Philadelphia to the campaign trail as one of just three policy advisers to vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney. Then, as if four short months on a presidential campaign wasn't enough of a baptism by fire, Kaplan found himself in south Florida for the 2000 recount saga—he was among the crowd of Republican activists and protestors outside a meeting of the Miami-Dade County elections board in what later became known as the “Brooks Brothers riot.”
"I was actually a Democrat all the way through 1998," explains the Massachusetts native, who calls his party switch "just a personal evolution in my thinking."
No room for partisan politics at Facebook, though, says Kaplan, who's working on coining a new catchphrase for the Washington office. "I've said this recently, but I think we're going to start saying it more: The color of the site is blue, but the color of the company is definitely purple," he says.
Schooling lawmakers on the state and federal level about Facebook's approach to data and privacy issues is task number one. Even as Facebook’s use as a campaign tool continues to explode, legislation that could cripple the company’s ability to target ads and turn a profit has already been introduced in Congress.
"Because of its prominence and the fact that it has grown so quickly, it's natural that when people are thinking about these issues they may think about Facebook," says Kaplan. "That may not really be where they ought to be focusing their attention, though, because Facebook is uniquely protective on the Internet of their information."
Kaplan is one in a series of high profile hires for Facebook in recent months that signals the more aggressive posture the social network will take on the Hill. It's not like walking into the West Wing every day, Kaplan admits, but for Facebook, the stakes are just as high.
"Here, I'm the only one wearing a suit every day," says Kaplan. "That's the biggest difference."
I ask him if it’s a Brooks Brothers suit. Turning back his left lapel with a wry smile, Kaplan takes a glimpse at the label.
"I'm not answering that question," he says.