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Google's pumping money to DC—but what is its goal?

Until fairly recently, Silicon Valley companies steered clear of political lobbying. No longer.

Top among tech companies looking for influence in Washington is Google, which spent $5.5 million on congressional lobbying in the first quarter, the most since it started petitioning Congress internally in 2007, according to data released this week.

This expenditure reveals how Google may be looking to the government to help protect existing business—like search and advertising—as much as ease the legal environment for new ventures—like broadband and health data mining—experts said.

That $5.5 million sum placed Google fifth among all companies and trade organizations registered to lobby in that period, according to money in politics researcher MapLight. The company hired or retained about 100 lobbyists last year, according to think tank Public Citizen, spending nearly $17 million in 2014, ninth-most among registered organizations.

"They're exponentially more powerful in politics than they've ever been. They're a giant in a lot of ways right now," said Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch division at Public Citizen.

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Google's projects and federal disclosures provide some insight into the company's policy goals.

It indicates Google may need U.S. government influence to both ensure existing businesses' growth, and lay the groundwork for newer ventures, said Filipe Campante, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University.

In the first quarter, the tech giant lobbied over the "regulation of online advertising," a nod to its core business. It also petitioned for "intellectual property enforcement" and "privacy and data security issues," among other topics.

Hand touching screen with Google's website displayed
Philippe Huguen | AFP | Getty Images

Further subjects listed point to the company's niche projects and newer ventures. "Health data policy," "autonomous vehicle technology" and "broadband adoption and deployment" hint at the company's forays into health-care search, self-driving cars and high-speed Internet, respectively.

Google's uptick in spending notably comes as it faces a European Union investigation over anti-competitive practices, said Dan Stevens, an analyst at MapLight.

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Google declined to comment on its lobbying behavior.

But the company's political influence may manifest most in policies or products consumers never see, Public Citizen's Gilbert said. She noted that, like many companies and organizations, some of Google's political contributions are "dark," or undisclosed.

Though Google has become an immense political power, "they're sort of quietly doing it," she said.