Facebook's new general counsel coy about role

Ted Ullyot declines to say what he'd do about those pesky Beacon complaints--or whether he'd follow Microsoft's lead and petition the government about the Wall Street fiasco.

Facebook's appointment of Ted Ullyot as its first general counsel might spook some in freewheeling Silicon Valley: he served as chief of staff to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and as an associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

But in an interview Monday with CNET News, Ullyot said that his past resume will make it easier for the fast-growing social network to deal with Washington insiders--because he used to be one himself.

"Having served in the executive branch in Washington and also in the judicial branch, I have a pretty good understanding of those issues," Ullyot said. "So to the extent that matters come up in those areas that have a legal component as distinct from a purely policy component, having a background in the federal government can help you understand the way government regulators think."

Ullyot declined to provide specifics on his role at Facebook, which he starts in the middle of October, with the justification that he isn't yet familiar enough with the company's workings. Fair enough.

For example, he wouldn't make a call on what would happen to any still-extant lawsuits against the ill-fated Beacon advertising program, or whether Facebook would take a stand against the U.S. House of Representatives' rejection of Monday's $700 billion Wall Street bailout. The general counsel at Microsoft, which has a $240 million stake in Facebook , has petitioned to the government to reconsider. "I'd just want to take a look at the issues," Ullyot said.

"In my prior senses (as a general counsel), what I've really concluded in those is that every company is very different, unique, and has a particular sense of legal issues and challenges," Ullyot explained. "And so the key for me, for any general counsel, is going to be to come on board, to study the issues, immerse yourself in the company, ask a lot of questions, and just get up to speed on the issues as fast as you can, so that's what you look forward to doing."

Ullyot said that Facebook had been looking to hire a general counsel for some time now, and that there was no particular reason that he was hired now as opposed to several months ago or down the road. In other words, Facebook didn't hire a full-time lawyer to bail it out of anything--though Ullyot might find himself dealing with the film and publishing industries soon, if an allegedly unsavory book and movie about Facebook's origins end up coming to fruition.

"Just getting to know it, (Facebook) is very mindful of Washington, very aware of Washington, and very savvy in the ways of Washington already," said Ullyot, who will relocate to the company's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters but will spend time in D.C. as needed. "I think that comes from Elliot Schrage heading up policy , and having someone like Sheryl Sandberg as COO, with her extensive Washington background as a chief of staff herself at a Cabinet agency."

So, not surprisingly, he thinks it's been good for Facebook to have seasoned executives on board to help its young founding team navigate their way through the real world. But he added that Facebook's existing legal team, which has been working with outside counsel, has done "an excellent job."

He did say that his role at Facebook will probably also reach the thousands of third-party developers working on the social network's developer platform; some of Facebook's most recent legal issues, like the Scrabulous affair, have dealt with the platform rather than the site itself. "To the extent that we've got legal interactions with (developers), contractual or otherwise, or working on standards, I would expect that legal is involved in those," Ullyot said.

There was one question he could answer concretely: Though Ullyot's undergraduate years at Harvard overlapped with COO Sheryl Sandberg's, he said that the two of them did not know each other.

About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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