By Brendan Sasso - 11/20/12 10:30 AM EST
Twitter is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, with about 170 million active users, including world leaders, business executives and celebrities.
But when it comes to a presence in Washington, D.C., Twitter still lags far behind other Silicon Valley giants.
Facebook and Google have built extensive lobbying operations to ensure that policymakers look out for their interests.
Twitter, the microblogging service that allows users to share their thoughts in 140-character messages, has no registered lobbyists and just two employees following policy issues. The company rents a handful of offices in a nondescript building about a mile from the U.S. Capitol.
Colin Crowell, a Washington veteran, launched Twitter’s global public policy operation last year. Before the company began renting office space, he worked from home.
He now shares an office with Will Carty, Twitter’s second policy staffer, who joined the company in September.
Crowell told The Hill that the company has no plans to expand its policy team, but that he and Carty will register as lobbyists if their work requires it.
For now, they are focused on keeping tabs on laws and regulations that could affect the popular social-media service.
Crowell’s team might be small, but it would be tough to find a person with more experience in technology policy.
As a longtime staffer for Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and then as a counselor to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Crowell helped craft many of the landmark laws and regulations that now govern the technology industry.
He studied political science and computer science at Boston College, but Crowell said that after graduation, he wanted to work on international human-rights issues.
He got his start as an assistant to Markey and planned to eventually go back to school to become a foreign diplomat. But one day, Markey, the longtime chairman of Energy’s subcommittee on communications and technology, told Crowell to start working on telecommunications issues.
Crowell said he was shocked “to find how intellectually interesting it was.”
Crowell helped pass the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of communications policy in 60 years, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which governs the use of copyrighted works online.
After being Markey’s aide for over 20 years, he switched to the executive branch after President Obama took office. As a senior counselor at the FCC, he was a chief architect of the National Broadband Plan, the administration’s roadmap for improving and expanding Internet access.
He also worked on the commission’s controversial net-neutrality rules, which bar Internet service providers from slowing down or blocking access to legitimate websites. Web companies, including Twitter, Google and Facebook, argue that the rules are critical for ensuring an open and vibrant Internet.
But Republicans slam the net-neutrality order as burdensome government regulation of the Internet. Verizon’s lawsuit to overturn the rules is pending in federal court.
Crowell explained that he joined Twitter in 2011 because he is attracted to the “up-and-coming and the new and the innovative.”
He left the door open, however, to a return to government work.
“I loved my government experience. Now is the right time for me to do something new, but I would be open to going back,” he said.
One of the issues Crowell has focused on at Twitter is free expression, especially for Twitter users in other countries.
Twitter played a high-profile role in protests during the Arab Spring, allowing dissidents to communicate and organize.
Crowell argued that one of Twitter’s distinguishing features is that, unlike Facebook, it allows for anonymous user names. That anonymity can be critical, especially in countries where citizens fear retribution for speaking out against the government, Crowell said.
Like other Web companies, Twitter complies with foreign laws that require it to delete controversial or inflammatory material.
But in an effort to increase transparency, Twitter followed Google’s lead and released a report in July detailing the number of requests it receives from government officials to take down content or turn over user information. Crowell said the next report is due in December.
Crowell testified before the British Parliament in September, expressing his concern about a pending bill that would allow the government to require companies to collect more information about their users.
Privacy protection is one of the most pressing policy issues for the technology industry. Many online services are free, but companies make money by displaying advertisements tailored to users’ browsing history. Concern that people are losing control over their personal information has prompted calls from lawmakers and regulators for tougher oversight.
The Federal Trade Commission has made privacy enforcement a top priority, bringing cases against Facebook and Google in recent years for failing to live up to their own privacy policies. Twitter settled its own case with the FTC in 2010 for failing to adequately protect its users’ data.
There is talk that lawmakers could take up comprehensive privacy protection legislation next year. Markey, Crowell’s old boss, is one of the most outspoken supporters of tougher online privacy protection.
But Crowell said that Twitter isn’t too worried about privacy regulation.
“We tend not to have the issues that other companies have because the nature of Twitter is public already,” Crowell explained. “So what people tweet, whom they follow, whom they retweet, is public already.”
He also touted Twitter’s decision not to monitor which websites users visit if they select the Do Not Track option in their Web browser. That move won praise from FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who has been pushing the industry to allow users to opt out of online tracking.
The biggest technology policy battle this year was over anti-piracy legislation. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would have required websites to delete links to foreign sites dedicated to copyright infringement.
Supporters of the bill argued it was necessary to curb the growing problem of online copyright infringement, but many Web companies warned it would restrict free speech and stifle innovation.
A massive Web protest forced lawmakers to shelve the legislation in January.
Unlike Google and Wikipedia, Twitter did not participate in the protest, although its founders did tweet their opposition to the bill.
Crowell said SOPA “went too far,” but that because Twitter is mostly a pointing service to other content, future anti-piracy legislation is unlikely to threaten the company’s business.
Crowell also said he doesn’t think Twitter will ever try to use its own highly visible platform to campaign against a policy proposal, like Google and other sites did in the SOPA protest.
“Twitter is an open platform. So one of the wonderful things about the SOPA debate was that the debate occurred on Twitter. Both sides were on Twitter,” Crowell said. “That’s really what our role is.”