Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit

Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit
© Greg Nash

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers Twitter adds fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets despite Trump attacks Pelosi says Zuckerberg comments are a 'disgrace' 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 WarnerSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections On The Money: US tops 100,000 coronavirus deaths with no end in sight | How lawmaker ties helped shape Fed chairman's COVID-19 response | Tenants fear mass evictions 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 CantwellDemocratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight Trump nominee for Consumer Product Safety Commission involved in CDC guidance shelving: AP Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections 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 SchatzThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats slam Trump for threatening to hold Michigan funds Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections Coronavirus drives record number of complaints to consumer bureau 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 HawleyTrump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections Trump to order review of law protecting social media firms after Twitter spat: report Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  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 John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America 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 LeeHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting 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 CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonDemocrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Chinese official accuses US of 'pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War' MORE (R-Ark.) and John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight 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.