Facebook raises its game in Washington by forming its own PAC

Facebook, the global social networking giant, is setting up a political action committee to become a new power player in Washington.

The company acknowledged its intentions on Monday, confirming to The Hill that it had filed the necessary paperwork and was poised to become a serious player in federal politics.

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It acknowledged the formation of the PAC after reports that it had registered the domain names FBPAC.org and FBPAC.us. Creating a PAC is the latest of several steps Facebook has taken to expand its presence and deepen its ties to the nation’s capital. 

“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,” said a spokesman via email.

Created by Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, Facebook is still a relative newcomer to both the business world and Capitol Hill. But it has joined Apple and Google as a firm that defines the digital economy to policymakers. Facebook only began lobbying in 2009, hiring former congressional staffer Adam Conner to serve as evangelist to lawmakers and political campaigns.

Since then Facebook has steadily added personnel with deep political ties, such as former Clinton White House official Sheryl Sanberg, who serves as chief operating officer, and former Obama administration official Marne Levine, now vice president of global public policy. Former President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Joel Kaplan, joined the firm in June to head Facebook’s Washington office. 

Kaplan’s hiring in particular indicates Facebook is likely looking to avoid the type of congressional scrutiny that has affected other firms like Microsoft and Google, which is currently under a Federal Trade Commission antitrust probe.

The perception that Google was sympathetic toward Democrats hasn’t helped since the Republicans surged in 2010, with House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Senate Antitrust panel ranking member Mike Lee (R-Utah) among those who have targeted the search giant for questioning.

Still, Facebook remains a darling on both sides of the aisle, hosting events for candidates from both parties and drawing praise from the House Republican leadership, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), among others. 

Sandberg, however, has shown her Democratic roots, holding a pricy fundraiser for Obama at her San Jose, Calif., home Sunday night, which included an appearance by Lady Gaga. But she also moderated a Facebook town-hall meeting with Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Ryan on Monday night.

Facebook’s lobbying spending has totaled $550,000 for fiscal 2011, a significant boost over the $350,000 spent in 2010 and the $200,000 in 2009. That figure should climb as Facebook and other Web firms are expected to lobby against potentially onerous new privacy regulations — such as a ban on any targeted online advertising without users’ consent.

Consumer privacy is a hot topic on Capitol Hill these days, and Facebook has been criticized in the past for what some believe is a cavalier attitude toward the issue. Zuckerberg argues consumers have shown a strong preference for sharing more information and he is simply trying to create tools to enable that. As recently as this week, the firm rolled out a host of changes to profiles and how information is shared by users, drawing mostly praise from the online community, in contrast to previous site changes.

But an antitrust hearing last week, which featured Google CEO Eric Schmidt, demonstrated the advantages of having friends in high places; several of the panel’s Democratic members chose not to question Schmidt about the hearing’s topic and instead spent their time praising the firm for innovation. 

Facebook’s new PAC is no doubt an attempt at forging the same sort of deep relationship with policymakers for similar battles in the future.