By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - As Brazil threatens to impose strict new regulations on American Internet companies, Facebook offered some of its top politicians free advice this week on how to win "friends" and maximize "likes" on their webpages.
Facebook's tips on using social media came as politicians geared up for a 2014 general election and as Congress prepared to vote on legislation that could severely restrict the way companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google operate in Brazil.
After revelations of U.S. government spying on Brazilian citizens and companies, including President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil is rushing through legislation that would oblige Internet companies to store information about their Brazilian users in the country. The lower house of Congress votes on the measure next Wednesday.
Internet companies and technology experts say the demand would be costly and technically complicated.
With 76 million Facebook users, more than any other country outside the United States and possibly India, Brazil is a key market for the San Francisco-based social network. That also makes Facebook a powerful tool for Brazilian politicians Seeking to win new supporters.
"That's such a huge voting block of citizens who are getting a lot of their news and information from places like Facebook," said Katie Harbath, Facebook's global manager for politics and government engagement.
Harbath did not discuss Brazil's move to regulate Internet usage in her coaching sessions, but she conducted them with Bruno Magrani, the company's top lobbyist in Brasilia.
Harbath spent four days in capital instructing Brazilian lawmakers and staffers in packed congressional rooms on how to maximize the "likes" on their Facebook pages. She taught President Dilma Rousseff's online team how boost her social media presence.
Before joining Facebook, Harbath was a digital strategist for the Republican National Committee and the 2008 presidential campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Some of Harbath's tips: don't post more than three times a day to avoid boring potential supporters; be as authentic and personal as possible; engage constituents in question-and-answer sessions, virtual town halls that are so popular with U.S. congressmen that they call them Facebook Fridays.
Above all, she advised, post content at the time of peak Facebook usage. Compared with the United States, where usage peaks between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., surveys show Facebook usage is heaviest in Brazil at lunchtime.
Harbath showed Brazilian politicians how to use Facebook metadata tools to learn how many users visit their pages and at what time of the day.
In a telephone interview, she declined to comment on the impact of Brazil's proposed Internet law.
LOCALIZING DATA CENTERS
Angered by reports that the U.S. National Security Agency monitored emails, phone calls and other communications of Brazilians with secret Internet surveillance programs, Rousseff's government wants to force foreign-based Internet companies to maintain data centers inside Brazil, subject to Brazilian privacy laws.
Internet companies operating in Brazil are currently free to put data centers wherever they like. Facebook Inc, for example, stores its global data in the United States and a new complex in Sweden.
Business lobbies have written to lawmakers warning that the in-country data storage requirements could exclude Brazilian Internet users from cloud data storage services, shut off Brazil from the seamless flow of global information and hinder its hopes of becoming a regional IT and data center hub.
One lawmaker who met with Harbath, former Rio de Janeiro Governor Antony Garotinho, said the requirement for local data centers must be dropped.
"I'm against it. How are you going to store in Brazil information on Brazilians that is part of a worldwide network? It's kind of hard and I think it's unlikely to happen."
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paulo Prada and Doina Chiacu)