Date
21 October 2019
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. accompanied by aides and members of news media, walks to senators' offices on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. accompanied by aides and members of news media, walks to senators' offices on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Facebook CEO meets Trump, seeks to mend fences in Washington

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg met with US President Donald Trump on Thursday during a fence-mending visit to Washington where the chief executive faced aggressive questioning from lawmakers about the social network’s failures to protect consumer privacy, Reuters reports.

Trump posted a photo with Zuckerberg on Twitter and called their session a “nice meeting” in the Oval Office. Facebook said the tech executive “had a good, constructive meeting with President Trump at the White House today”. Neither side disclosed specifics of their discussion.

Trump has castigated Facebook repeatedly, accusing it of being biased in favor of Democrats. The company has faced a barrage of other criticism over privacy lapses, election-related activity and its dominance in online advertising, giving rise to calls for more regulation and anti-trust investigations.

Wearing a suit and tie rather than his usual hoodie, Zuckerberg met on Thursday, the second day of the three-day visit, with Senators Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and Mike Lee. He also had dinner with lawmakers, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, on Wednesday evening.

Zuckerberg took no questions from reporters as he moved from office to office on Capitol Hill. He was to meet with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, on Friday and with several high-ranking House Democrats.

After his meeting with the Facebook founder, Hawley, a tough critic, said that discussions had been “frank,” often a euphemism for contentious. He urged Zuckerberg to sell Facebook’s Instagram and WhatsApp units, which would limit how much information it could compile about an individual from different sources.

After his meeting with the Facebook founder, Hawley, a tough critic, said that discussions had been “frank”, often a euphemism for disagreements.

He told Zuckerberg that Facebook could show it was serious about protecting users’ privacy by selling social media platforms that Facebook had acquired. This would restrict the company’s ability to compile information about an individual from different sources.

“I said to him, ‘Prove that you’re serious about data. Sell WhatsApp. And sell Instagram,’” Hawley told reporters. “Safe to say he was not receptive to those suggestions.”

Hawley has accused Facebook of suppressing conservative speech. He was one of four senators who signed a letter this month accusing Facebook of censorship for declaring statements on the anti-abortion group Live Action’s Facebook page false and temporarily restricting access to it as part of an effort to fight false news.

Hawley expressed exasperation with the CEO’s acknowledgment that restricting access to the page had been an error.

“He said that they made a mistake, that there was clearly bias in the Live Action decision,” said Hawley, who urged Facebook to submit its content moderation process to an independent third-party audit. “The company talks a lot. I’d like to see some action.”

The CEO was expected to meet on Friday with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been an outspoken critic of what he has called bias at Facebook, as well as Adam Schiff, a Democrat and chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Dinner with senators

Another critic has been Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who attended a dinner with Zuckerberg on Wednesday at the Washington restaurant Ris.

After the dinner, Blumenthal said he had brought up Facebook’s “repeated failures” in election security and consumer privacy. “We had [a] serious, substantive conversation even when we may have differed,” he said in a statement.

Zuckerberg also met with Senators Mike Lee, Tom Cotton and Maria Cantwell, who is one of several lawmakers working to draft online privacy legislation.

Lee, who has more moderate views of the social media company, and Zuckerberg discussed bias on Facebook’s platform, potential government regulation, antitrust and other issues, a spokesman said.

Facebook has spent the last several years under fire for a string of lapses including inappropriately sharing information belonging to 87 million users with a now-defunct British political consultancy, triggering a US$5 billion fine.

The company, which is an advertising powerhouse, faces antitrust investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and a number of state attorneys general, as well as numerous legislative proposals that seek to restrict how it operates.

It may also face an antitrust probe by the US Justice Department. Senator Lee was critical of what he saw as duplication in federal investigations in a hearing on Tuesday.

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CG