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Ex-Microsoft CEO Ballmer: How Silicon Valley should handle some of its most vexing questions

Andy Serwer
·Editor in Chief

Billionaire and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a message for Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs in the government’s crosshairs: Make peace with the feds now.

Speaking with me in an interview at the Penn Wharton Budget Model’s First Spring Policy Forum in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., Ballmer referred to his experience running Microsoft (MSFT) with Bill Gates when the company battled the government over monopolistic behavior, a fight that dragged on for years. Ballmer expressed regret that the company didn’t figure a way out earlier on.

“This government stuff, it’s serious stuff,” Ballmer said on stage in front of an audience of Congressional staffers and Wharton grads. “And knowing what I know now, I would have resolved the issues. I think we should have figured out how to settle matters out earlier than we did. I do not think it was helpful for our company, the path we took.”

Ballmer was answering questions after a presentation about his new non-profit, USAFacts.org, which aims to organize all the data from the federal government to help citizens and lawmakers have a better understanding of government and make better decisions.

Ballmer, who also owns the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, went on to suggest that others might make Microsoft’s mistake. “I think the tech industry right now could well repeat that experience. I think fully accepting that things are not the way they need to be and going to work on those issues in a way that people believe you are serious about, as opposed to the tech industry generally appearing arrogant, I understand that.”

He also warned against Congressional action: “Somebody has got to decide what’s OK and what’s not OK. I don’t think that should be Congress,” he said. “I do think it should probably, in general, be one of the regulatory agencies. They can dig in. They are super-complicated issues with deep technology. They can understand this stuff. They can keep it out of the political realm, by and large.”

Facebook, Ballmer suggests, has some vexing issues. “Is there fake news on Facebook? Of course there is,” he says. “I could go right now on Facebook and say there’s an earthquake, Richter scale 7, in Washington, D.C. And should I be allowed to do that or should that be something that somehow Facebook has a way to control? I don’t know. I get how Facebook could control advertising. I don’t get how they’re a value proposition, which people – the world does like. I don’t understand how it works at all if you have no freedom of speech, even if you are saying things that are patently false.”

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.