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Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit

Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit
© Greg Nash

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergAdvocacy group accuses Facebook of fueling anti-Muslim hate Texas GOP move to overhaul voting laws: What you need to know Congress must come together and protect our children on social media MORE sought to woo some of his top critics in Washington during a string of Capitol Hill meetings on Thursday, underlining how seriously the tech executive is taking the intensifying government scrutiny of his company, once considered a darling of D.C.

Zuckerberg's meetings with Republican senators on Thursday and a sit-down with Democrats the day before marked his first return to the halls of Congress since he testified in widely publicized hearings in April 2018.

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In closed-door meetings with influential senators, Zuckerberg defended his company against accusations that it has amassed too much power, censored conservative voices and failed to adequately protect against election interference on the platform. 

According to a Facebook spokesperson, Zuckerberg came to town to discuss "future internet regulation." According to lawmakers and their offices, the meetings ultimately addressed everything from data privacy to alleged anti-conservative bias, with Zuckerberg in the hot seat.

On Wednesday night, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerA bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure Five ways an obscure Senate ruling could change Washington MORE (D-Va.) arranged a swanky dinner for Democrats and Zuckerberg at Facebook's request.

During the meal, which included Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), lawmakers pressed Zuckerberg over the "role and responsibility of social media platforms in protecting our democracy, and what steps Congress should take to defend our elections, protect consumer data, and encourage competition in the social media space," according to a Warner spokesperson.

"Good dinner last night with my colleagues and Mark Zuckerberg," Warner tweeted. "There is a long road ahead of us but I appreciate his candor, and that he took our concerns seriously. Hope we can work together to address these challenges."

Zuckerberg also sat down on Wednesday with Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats Murkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination Regulators keep close eye on Facebook's deal with Australia MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee and one of the key lawmakers working to craft data privacy legislation that could significantly curtail how Facebook collects and uses data.

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzGeorgia law makes it a crime to give food, water to people waiting to vote Senate Democrats reintroduce bill to create financial transaction tax GOP lawmaker introduces bill targeting tech liability protections MORE (D-Hawaii), another top Facebook critic and key lawmaker on privacy, was "unable to find a time" to meet with Zuckerberg due to conflicting schedules, a spokesperson told The Hill. However, the spokesperson added, Schatz met with Zuckerberg at his Honolulu office last month.

Zuckerberg's seemingly smooth tour, though, hit a snag on Thursday after he sat down with Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcConnell in tricky spot with GOP, big biz Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate MORE (R-Mo.) for more than an hour in the senator's office.

After the huddle, Hawley convened a press gaggle, telling reporters he had asked Zuckerberg to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp to "prove" that he is committed to privacy.

"I said to him, 'Prove that you’re serious about data — sell WhatsApp and Instagram,'" Hawley told reporters in a press gaggle after the sit-down with Zuckerberg, which lasted for over an hour. "That’s what they should do."

Hawley's calls come as federal agencies and a group of state attorneys general are probing whether Facebook has used its dominant market position to quash competitors. Facebook bought image-sharing platform Instagram in 2012 and messaging app WhatsApp in 2014.

"They should spin them off," Hawley said, marking the first time he has called for Facebook to be broken up. "Show that you have confidence in your core product, prove that you don’t have to buy companies to innovate, that you can actually still design stuff at Facebook without just going to competitors."

Hawley added that Zuckerberg seemed taken aback by his suggestions and was "not receptive."

With increasing volume over the past year, top Republicans — including President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks MORE — have been accusing the top tech companies in the country of routinely censoring conservative voices, a claim the companies have vehemently denied. 

Hawley told reporters Zuckerberg told him "bias is an issue they have been struggling with internally for years and they're trying to work through it but they still have a lot to do."

A Facebook spokesperson who accompanied Zuckerberg on Thursday clarified in an email to The Hill that the tech CEO meant to emphasize that "Silicon Valley has struggled for years with the PERCEPTION of bias."

"Mark went on to say that perception is something of which we need to be aware," the company spokesperson added.

Zuckerberg also addressed the issue of bias during a sit-down with Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOn management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process Rubio asks MLB commissioner if he'll give up Augusta golf club membership Why some Republicans think vaccine passports will backfire on Democrats MORE (R-Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel.

In a statement, a spokesman for Lee said the senator and Zuckerberg discussed "bias against conservatives on Facebook’s platform, government regulation of digital platforms, antitrust enforcement, Section 230 liability, and data-privacy issues.”

During the day, Zuckerberg also huddled with Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonMcConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE (R-Ark.) and John CornynJohn CornynOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Dakota Access pipeline to remain in operation despite calls for shutdown | Biden hopes to boost climate spending by B | White House budget proposes .4B for environmental justice 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet Number of migrants detained at southern border reaches 15-year high: reports MORE (R-Texas). Cotton's office declined to offer further information on their meeting.

Zuckerberg's latest visit comes as federal regulators and lawmakers have ramped up their investigations into Big Tech, with a bullseye on Facebook in particular. Many lawmakers have continued to criticize the company following its record-shattering $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy issues.

Zuckerberg declined to take questions throughout the day as a trail of reporters followed him throughout the Senate.

"I'm not answering questions," Zuckerberg said. "Sorry."

Updated at 6:11 p.m.