Mr. Google ( GOOG) is going to Washington.

Some observers sniffed a political motive as the popular search engine opened a lobbying office Thursday in the nation's capital. But the Mountain View, Calif., company immediately moved to drape its policymaking efforts in the mighty flag of Internet freedom.

"Our mission in Washington boils down to this: defend the Internet as a free and open platform for information, communication and innovation," Andrew McLaughlin, a senior policy counsel, wrote Thursday on the company's internal blog.

"It is quite clear that there are enough issues in the policy space that impact our users and our company that we need to have a full-time presence in Washington," says Google lobbyist Alan Davidson. "We are building an office here and it will be an office that matches Google's stature and desire to be an engaged industry leader.

"I expect that we will be a very principled presence in Washington," Davidson says.

There is no shortage of work for Google in Washington. Congress is rewriting telecommunications laws, and Google faces ever-mounting challenges on the privacy front. Some advocates say they will keep a close eye on Google's activities.

"Clearly, they have tremendous resources to influence policymakers," says Jeff Chester, the head of the Center for Digital Democracy, an online watchdog. "I do worry that Google will simply become part of the advertising and media lobby in Washington."

Google is working to prevent Internet service providers from being able to choose what content is sent over their networks, or from cutting deals with companies to give them faster Net access than their rivals, according to McLaughlin. The company also supports the protection of copyrighted material while maintaining "strong, viable fair-use rights," he said.

This issue has come up in the controversy over Google Print, the company's initiative to scan books from some libraries and archives so that they can be searched on the Internet. The Authors Guild has filed suit to stop the program, claiming it violates copyrights. Google disagrees. Rival Yahoo! ( YHOO) is backing a rival digitization effort that will seek permission from copyright owners before using their material.

Coming to Washington may put Google's philosophy of doing no evil to the test. Companies often need to cut deals and make compromises in order to be effective, and rivals in the marketplace may become allies when trying to influence government policy. Given the breadth of Google's activities, the company had little choice but to have a Washington presence.

Google has already experienced some political controversy. The company considered hiring Dan Senor, the former spokesman to the U.S. Provisional Authority in Iraq. He didn't end up joining Google after criticism from some bloggers, according to the Washington Post.

"They recognize that there are certain issues where they recognize they need to be engaged in the debate," says Blair Levin, a telecommunications policy analyst at Legg Mason who was a former chief of staff to Federal Communications Commission chief Reed Hundt.

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