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Why Mark Zuckerberg is Getting Political

In Silicon Valley, the disdain toward Washington is so palpable that the nation's capital is scarcely distinguishable from some distant banana republic.

Yet there's growing awareness that the Technorati need to have a voice in Washington, lest politicians muck up one of the most dynamic sectors of the U.S. economy.

The latest tech newcomer to the political arena is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is forming a still unnamed nonprofit group focused on immigration and education policy. This comes after the formation last year of the Internet Association, a Washington trade group representing the biggest names in tech, including Facebook, Google, Amazon and Yahoo. That group's mission is to make sure policymakers do nothing to hamstring the free flow of information or overly regulate technology firms.

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Tech leaders certainly aren't naive about politics, but up till now they've enjoyed a kind of built-in protection from political meddling, due to the novelty of companies like Facebook and Twitter, and before that Google and Yahoo. Politicians were reluctant to meddle with fledgling industries that seemed vitally important to the future of the U.S. economy.

But many of those startups have become global powerhouses, making them fair game for regulators, politicians and critics who feel they exploit consumers in some way or benefit from favorable rules. The poster child may be Microsoft, which grew from a tech wunderkind into a giant firm routinely accused of antitrust violations.

Online retailers such as Amazon and Overstock, for instance, now face calls for their customers to pay sales tax in all 50 states, after being exempt from taxes in many states for years. Google routinely battles claims that it enjoys a monopoly on search. And numerous Internet firms became alarmed last year when Congress proposed new ways to combat online piracy, fearing a new corps of Internet police would do more harm than good. Congress scrapped the proposal but may revive the idea in a different form.

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Facebook faces ongoing concerns about the privacy of its users' data, but that doesn't seem to be why Zuckerberg is forming his nonprofit venture. Instead, he seems likely to address two issues that many business leaders complain about: Restrictions on the ability of talented foreigners to work in the United States, and lousy schools that make it hard for employers such as Facebook to find enough talented workers.

Zuckerberg's new outfit will reportedly be an advocacy group, not a lobbying arm, yet it could still wield influence with policymakers. Zuckerberg will probably use his group to highlight the need for businesses to have better access to talented foreigners, particularly engineers, programmers and other technical experts.

Under the current system, there's a cap of 65,000 on the number of foreigners who can come to the United States each year to perform specialized work. Many business groups want to raise that to 300,000 or more, while also making it easier for foreigners to invest in the United States or open businesses here. Such measures are less controversial than other elements of immigration reform, yet in Washington they tend to get tangled up with hot-button issues such as whether to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the United States. Expect Zuckerberg's group to mount "educational" campaigns on why more foreigners would be good for business.

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Zuckerberg also has a soft spot for school reform, having donated $100 million of his own money to help revamps the troubled schools in Newark, N.J. His advocacy group will probably do a lot more to highlight the business imperative for better public schools, again, echoing the views of many business groups.

The Zuckerberg-backed group may also focus on other public-interest matters that have a less obvious connection to Facebook's business interests. But in Washington, as in the online world, everything is ultimately connected to everything else.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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