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Facebook’s Zuckerberg Clashes With Republican on Company’s Clout

Naomi Nix, Rebecca Kern and Steven T. Dennis
Facebook’s Zuckerberg Clashes With Republican on Company’s Clout

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg clashed with Republican Senator Josh Hawley over his company’s record on privacy and safeguarding user data as the social media platform comes under unprecedented scrutiny in Washington.

“I said to him, ‘prove that you are serious about data, sell WhatsApp, and sell Instagram.’ That’s what they should do,” Hawley said to reporters after meeting with Zuckerberg in Washington Thursday. “I think it’s safe to say he was not receptive to those suggestions.”

Zuckerberg is in the nation’s capital defending his company’s practices to some of his harshest critics over their concerns that he isn’t taking strong enough action to prevent voter manipulation on the platform ahead of the 2020 presidential election, along with criticisms over the company’s handling of user data and curbing online violence.

Hawley said he had a “very frank discussion” with Zuckerberg on the company’s record on privacy and political bias and said he thinks Facebook should be subject to independent audits of its content reviews. Hawley said he also pressed Zuckerberg for “a wall” between Facebook and its other platforms and Zuckerberg said no.

Facebook is creating an oversight board to review what content should be policed and just released a charter outlining more details about the group earlier this week.

Zuckerberg’s visit to the capital also included dinner Wednesday with Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, along with other lawmakers.

“Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that self-regulation is not going to cut it,” Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said to Bloomberg Television. “I think he realizes that the status quo and the days of the wild, wild West are over.”

Warner helped organize the dinner with lawmakers at Facebook’s request, according to Rachel Cohen, a Warner spokeswoman. They discussed a wide range of issues “including 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,” Cohen said in a statement.

Facebook is battling criticism from lawmakers over its handling of users’ personal information, the proliferation of violent content and election interference by foreign operatives. In response to the growing scrutiny, Zuckerberg has called for the passage of baseline regulations governing harmful content online.

Democratic lawmakers have attacked Facebook’s handling of political content, including the way foreign operators have used the platform to sow discord in American public life. A report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller described how a Russian entity “carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”

Republicans accuse it of anti-conservative bias. Hawley said that Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company has been struggling with bias for years, and said the censorship of anti-abortion group Live Action was a mistake.

“He said that they made a mistake, that there was clearly bias,” Hawley said.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone clarified that Zuckerberg told Hawley there was bias in the fact-checking process, which includes third-party partners, not at Facebook itself. Zuckerberg also told Hawley that for years Silicon Valley has struggled with perceptions of bias and that the industry needs to be aware of the issue, Stone added.

The company has found no evidence of systemic anti-conservative bias on Facebook, where many of the top publishers are conservative.

Blumenthal said in a statement that he also had a “serious conversation” with Zuckerberg at the dinner, which took place at Ris, an upscale American bistro, about the “challenges of privacy” facing Facebook, which has been ensnared in controversy over the way it has shared users’ information with third parties.

“It’s no secret that I’ve been a tough critic of Facebook, so I was glad for the opportunity to discuss my concerns directly with Mr. Zuckerberg,” he said.

Zuckerberg also met with Senators Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, Utah Republican Mike Lee and Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton. Friday the CEO is slated to meet House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California.

“One of the most pressing issues for me is the threat posed by deepfake technology and it’s potential misuse during the presidential campaign,” Schiff said in an interview with Bloomberg Government.

Zuckerberg isn’t meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to a person familiar with the matter. Democrats castigated the company earlier this year after it failed to remove a doctored video of Pelosi. She has snubbed at least two meetings with him, Bloomberg has reported. He also isn’t meeting several high-profile Republicans who are working on a federal privacy bill, including Senator Roger Wicker. Marsha Blackburn said he’d reached out to her but her travel schedule didn’t allow a meeting.

Zuckerberg doesn’t appear to be meeting with government officials conducting inquiries. The Federal Trade Commission has opened an antitrust probe of the company, and New York is leading a coalition of states in a wide-ranging investigation of the social media giant. In July, Facebook agreed to pay $5 billion to settle FTC allegations it violated users’ privacy.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee is also investigating competition issues in the technology industry. Last week, the panel sent a letter to Facebook seeking information about its acquisitions as well as communications from Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, former general counsel Colin Stretch and policy chief Kevin Martin.

--With assistance from Billy House, Joe Light, Ben Brody and Kurt Wagner.

To contact the reporters on this story: Naomi Nix in Washington at nnix1@bloomberg.net;Rebecca Kern in Arlington at rkern21@bloomberg.net;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at sforden@bloomberg.net, Steve Geimann

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