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Alumni Newsmakers

Protecting Facebook Privacy

Tim Coburn

Erin Egan, JD '94, recently took her daughter to basketball practice at Wood Acres Elementary, the school she attended as a child in Bethesda, Md. When she noticed a picture of her sixth grade graduation class on the wall, Ms. Egan delighted in pointing it out to her daughter.

After sharing the moment with her daughter, she whipped out her camera phone, snapped a picture of the old photograph, and shared it on Facebook.

"I just had this visceral reaction of 'wow, I have to get this up on Facebook and share,' " Ms. Egan says.

Ms. Egan had been an active Facebook user for about four years when the company made her an offer this fall. Now the popular social networking site is an even more important part of her life.

In mid-October, she left Covington & Burling, an international law firm, after 15 years to join Facebook's Washington office as senior policy adviser and director of privacy. She was subsequently promoted to chief privacy officer, policy.

In her new position, Ms. Egan says her top priority is going to be connecting with policymakers and educating them about privacy and the social web. "There isn't a one size fits all approach to these privacy issues," she says. "Context matters."

Ms. Egan, who is Facebook's first chief privacy officer, says her role is an extension of what Facebook is already doing to protect and raise awareness about privacy, safety, and security online.

"Trust is the core of Facebook's business," she says. "This is something they have been committed to from the beginning, and I can certainly vouch for that. I was quite impressed with how much they thought about privacy issues."

Although she, as a Facebook insider, has a front row seat to observe Facebook's efforts to protect privacy, Ms. Egan is aware that many Facebook users have concerns. She says innovation often requires people to change, and it's human nature to experience a level of discomfort with change.

"But I think once people understand what the Facebook changes are, they will see that they actually have a lot more control than they originally thought."

It's an exciting move for Ms. Egan, who first became interested in technology law during the late 1990s, as the Internet became more popular. After helping draft the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, she built a practice at Covington based on the federal and state legislative activity surrounding online data and privacy.

"It was a great success to be able to create a team and bring in clients who were concerned about data issues, and to help them understand the compliance and public policy implications of their business practices," she says.

At Covington, Ms. Egan worked with companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and MTV. Then late last year, Facebook became one of her clients. "Facebook has always interested me as a company," she says, "in terms of the social web and the tools that Facebook offers to facilitate connections between people."

One of the reasons that Ms. Egan says she decided to leave an established law firm is that she feels "really compelled" by Facebook.

"I think I made this move because I have a real sense of the commitment the company has to promoting privacy and safety and security online, and that they want to be a leader in this space," she says.

Ms. Egan—who says she loved her time as a student at GW Law School, where she made "tremendous connections" with colleagues who are now Facebook friends—says her studies in Foggy Bottom have served her well in her career.

"One of the skills that I learned at GW, which I took with me to Covington, is to really think creatively," she says, "to think outside of the box, to test assumptions, and to not be afraid of trying new things."

She remembers her professors at GW Law were "engaging and approachable" and she says serving on the school's moot court team, where she won a Van Vleck award, gave her confidence in her public speaking.

"When I think back to my time at GW, I tell folks I laughed as much as I studied," she says. "I embraced it and enjoyed it."

Asked what advice she has for JD candidates at GW Law, Ms. Egan recommends that students take the initiative to figure out what makes them tick. She cautions that finding one's calling can take time. At first she wanted to become a litigator, but after clerking early in her career, she decided to take a different route.

"At Covington, I kept trying new things," she says. "That's how you're going to have a long career—really finding what interests you and searching until you find it."

—Jaclyn Schiff