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Facebook Forms a PAC

THE CAUCUS BLOG - THE NEW YORK TIMES

In forming a political action committee, Facebook is joining other social media companies in efforts to integrate with the political landscape.

Facebook wants more friends. And it's willing to pay for them.

The Silicon Valley social media company has for the first time formed an old-fashioned political action committee and will use it to distribute cash to candidates in the coming elections. It is just one indication of how social media companies are integrating with the political landscape in a season in which these businesses are growing presences in the campaign conversation.

"FB PAC will give our employees a way to make their voice heard in the political process by supporting candidates who share our goals of promoting the value of innovation to our economy while giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected," a company spokesman said.

The move comes as technology companies like Facebook are moving quickly to increase their influence in Washington amid increasingly complex legislative debates about patents, monopoly status and concerns about the  privacy of users.

And it reflects a new desire among the senior executives at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and other companies to use their novel technologies to be part of the political process in ways that they haven't before.

Google co-sponsored a Republican presidential debate with Fox News last week. On Monday, Facebook held a town hall meeting featuring top House Republicans just hours after LinkedIn held a similar town hall with President Obama.

Executives at Facebook declined to offer more details about their political action committee or say which races it would make contributions to. The company confirmed the group was incorporated on Monday after it was reported that it had registered the Internet domains for FBPAC.org and FBPAC.us.

Facebook has steadily increased its presence in Washington as it has grown. In 2007 it hired its  first employee in the District of Columbia,  and the office now has more than a dozen, including four federally registered lobbyists. The amount they have spent lobbying Congress has grown as well.

"The increase represents a continuation of our efforts to explain how our service works as well as the important actions we take to protect people who use our service and promote the value of innovation to our economy," said Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman.

The company's competitors are also increasing their presence in the nation's capital as the competition for market dominance increasingly turns to legislative and regulatory fights.

According to disclosure documents filed in July, both Facebook and Google spent more money on lobbyists in the second quarter than ever before in yet another sign that the two technology giants are concerned about getting attention in Washington. Google increased its spending on lobbyists to $2.06 million in the second quarter, up from $1.48 million in the first quarter.

Facebook's spending on lobbying, while significantly less, increased to $320,000 in the second quarter, up from $230,000 in the first,  according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Google opened its Washington office in 2006, the same year it started its own political action committee. In that year, the company's committee distributed $36,984, according to OpenSecrets.Org, which tracks campaign spending. By 2010, the committee had distributed $345,000, all for congressional campaigns.

Google's office in Washington has grown as well. It now has 11 registered lobbyists as well as engineers, sales representatives and employees who work with enterprise clients, according to a company spokeswoman.

Last week, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google's board and the former chief executive, testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue of competition.

Mr. Schmidt told the committee that Google is in "the area" of a monopoly but is engaged in fierce competition with other companies.

Like Google, Facebook is facing increasing questions from lawmakers about the impact of its practices on its customers.

In May of 2010, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post to respond to charges that it had acted cavalierly with user data and had made it too complicated for people to protect their privacy.

"The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. "Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex."

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan group that focuses on privacy issues, said that it is not surprising that Facebook is looking to step up its lobbying efforts, particularly given new concerns about privacy issues since Facebook announced major changes to its platform last week.

"Facebook is monetizing its platform," Mr. Court said. "This is all about how much it is going to be able to push the envelope with consumers and not have the government require it to change."

Last week, when Mr. Schmidt was testifying before the Senate subcommittee, he was followed by three professional mimes who were working with the Consumer Watchdog group as part of an effort to show what it is like "to be tracked." The group supports legislation that would allow consumers to put themselves on a "do not track list" that would be similar to the "do not call list."

Mr. Court said having the mimes follow Mr. Schmidt in Washington was intended to demonstrate "how annoying it is to be tracked in the real world and not just online."