In running for attorney general of California, Facebook executive Chris Kelly is returning to his roots.
"Ever since I worked in public life when I was very young, I thought it was something that I might do at some point," said Kelly, a former Clinton campaign and White House staffer who serves as the massive social network's chief privacy officer and head of public policy.
"Over the past few years at Facebook, it's become clear to me that the role of the attorney general is incredibly able to help make change in the world, and that's what I got into technology to do, too," Kelly, who is a Democrat, continued in an interview with CNET News on Thursday. "So looking at how to do that in the political realm is something that's been under consideration for me for a long time, and it seems like it's the right time to give it a shot."
Kelly is staying with Facebook, which recently surpassed 200 million active members and continues to grow fast, while his campaign is still in the exploratory phase. He said that he will "continue to be active at Facebook for at least the next few months," and implied that he won't formally step down unless he is elected.
As for financing, Kelly said that "quite a number of people have pledged a fair amount of money," but added that he had not yet made a decision about self-financing. He didn't comment on whether this might include cashing out part of his stake in Facebook. California campaign finance sites do not yet list any donations to the Kelly campaign.
So how are his chances? Kelly will likely have strong rivals both in the Democratic primary, which takes place in June 2010, and the general election that November should he emerge victorious in the primary. With an executive post at one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley and a campaign platform focused on bringing everything from personal safety to violent crime control into the 21st century, Kelly can likely craft himself as the high-tech candidate.
"We're going to put together what we think is a fantastic story for the voters that reflects what the future of California should be," Kelly said to CNET News. "The reaction to somebody with both public and private sector experience stepping into this race has been very good and very exciting, and I'm thrilled to be looking at it long and hard and to be hearing from people abut their ideas about how to improve the state."
As attorney general, Kelly has expressed a desire to crack down on the white-collar crime that has been partially responsible for dragging California and the rest of the U.S. into a deep financial recession. He's also committed to bringing better technological strategies and equipment to law enforcement authorities, and pledges to not take his eye off online privacy.
"When I talk about technology, technology is never a panacea," Kelly admonished. "It has to be deployed in ways that are trying to build safer social systems. For instance, Facebook is not just about the deployment of technology in these areas, we made choices around being a real-world identity platform and enforcing the fact that you can't use a fake name and things like that. When you talk about technology, (it's) the place that it's been used most effectively. (In law enforcement) there's a technology component to it, but ultimately the goal is to find the people who are committing the crimes, and arrest them."
Kelly's tech cred is high. But on the flip side, popular though it may be, an affiliation with a social network like Facebook does come with some baggage. Controversial interface redesigns probably won't hurt his campaign a bit, but Facebook has suffered negative press over the past few years for its allegedly intrusive Beacon advertising program, phishing schemes and viruses that continue to pop up, and ironically a high-profile campaign on the behalf of several states' attorneys general to tackle the issue of sex offenders maintaining a presence on Facebook.
Kelly acknowledged that this sort of press could turn into fodder for negative campaigning. "I expect that the politics-as-usual crowd will try to make a bunch of stuff out of situations where Facebook has acted incredibly responsibly, and has been able to address the real problems of the Internet, and to build the systems that build a safer and more trusted online experience over time," Kelly said.
"I think that we're in a new era of politics and that that sort of approach just doesn't work the way that it used to," he continued, "but I fully expect that there will be some opponents in this race who will be interested in trying to exploit a misimpression that people have about the way Facebook has acted, and I'm ready for that."
Facebook, along with fellow social network MySpace (owned by News Corp.), eventually reached an agreement with New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo early in 2008 to collaborate on new safety legislation. Cuomo had subpoenaed Facebook several months prior, claiming that it misrepresented how safe it was for minors.
Kelly doesn't have an official endorsement from Facebook and probably won't get one down the line, either: he said the social network has never endorsed a political candidate or initiative and doesn't expect it to do any differently for him. Nor has he made the decision yet to endorse any one of the current Democratic gubernatorial candidates over another--even though San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made a high-profile visit to Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters right around the time that he announced his candidacy for the state house.
"I like Gavin. I like Jerry Brown. I like Antonio Villaraigosa," Kelly said, naming a few of the Democratic candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring. Incumbent Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, cannot run for re-election due to term limits. "There are quite a number of candidates who are or might be in that race, (Senator) Dianne Feinstein is another possibility, and boy, if that's the field, we've got a lot of great choices."