Sun, 24 Jan 2021

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg's Washington charm offensive appeared to ease tensions between the social media giant and US lawmakers critical of its business practices.

Most lawmakers described their meetings with the CEO as productive even as they called for new regulations on tech companies that they said would improve users' experiences and industry competition.

"It was a positive and robust discussion on privacy," Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said Friday after his meeting. "They committed to working with the Congress on a strong, nationwide privacy law."

In addition to Walden, Zuckerberg also met on Friday with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He sat down with House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat whose committee is investigating the technology industry.

On Thursday, Zuckerberg met with President Donald Trump at the White House, according to a Facebook spokesman. Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was there along with Dan Scavino, the president's social media director, Bloomberg reported. Trump later tweeted that it was a "nice meeting."

Zuckerberg spent the past three days defending Facebook's practices to some of his harshest critics, who say the company isn't taking strong enough action to prevent voter manipulation on the platform ahead of the 2020 presidential election. They also criticise the company's handling of user data and treatment of conservative voices on its platform.

On Friday, Facebook announced it had suspended "tens of thousands" of third-party apps that were using the company's developer tools as part of a review the company started following the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal last year. In response to the growing scrutiny of its platform, Zuckerberg has called for adoption of baseline regulations governing privacy and harmful content online.

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The prospects that a federal privacy law will pass before the end of 2020 remain low, even though Republicans and Democrats alike say they are negotiating terms of potential legislation.

Antitrust panel

Zuckerberg on Friday met with Nadler of New York as the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee is 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 and other executives.

Democratic Representative David Cicilline, chairman of the panel's antitrust subcommittee, said he had a "productive meeting" with Zuckerberg.

"It was an opportunity to reaffirm the bipartisan nature of the investigation - the fact that the chairman and I and our Republican colleagues are very united in this effort," Cicilline said. "Mr. Zuckerberg made a commitment to cooperate with the investigation."

'A wall'

A day earlier, Zuckerberg had a testier exchange with Republican Senator Josh Hawley over his company's record on privacy and safeguarding user data. Hawley said he told Zuckerberg that Facebook should be subject to independent audits of its content reviews and that there should be "a wall" between Facebook and its other platforms, and Zuckerberg said no.

"I said to him, 'Prove that you are serious about data, sell WhatsApp, and sell Instagram.' That's what they should do," Hawley told reporters after a Thursday meeting. "I think it's safe to say he was not receptive to those suggestions."

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

The executive didn't appear to be meeting with government officials conducting other 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 $5bn to settle FTC allegations it violated users' privacy.

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