Mark Zuckerberg had dinner with senators to discuss looming tech regulations

Key Points
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with about a half a dozen senators for dinner at a restaurant in D.C. Wednesday night, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. confirms to CNBC.
  • The spokesperson says Warner, a leading lawmaker pushing for regulations on the tech industry, helped organize the dinner at the request of Facebook.
  • The visit marks Zuckerberg's first known official visit to D.C. to face lawmakers since his 2018 testimonies in front of both chambers of Congress following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to dinner with about half a dozen senators in Washington on Wednesday to discuss regulations that lawmakers have been eager to apply to his industry.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., "helped organize" the dinner meeting "at Facebook's request," at a restaurant in D.C. Wednesday night, a spokesperson for his office confirmed to CNBC. Topics included "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 Warner's spokesperson. Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a leading figure in Congress championing legislation that would regulate the tech industry.

"This wasn't a dinner where we're trying to negotiate a specific piece of legislation," Warner said in an interview Thursday with MSNBC. Instead, Warner said he wanted the lawmakers "to be able to express first-hand" their concerns and for Zuckerberg to hear them in person.

In a later interview on CNBC's "Squawk Alley," Warner said he wanted Zuckerberg to hear that the type of criticism he's expressed about tech "does not come from a single group of senators, that is broadly based, it is bipartisan." Warner said on MSNBC the meeting included a mix of senators who have been outspoken critics of tech and those who are newer to the subject.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that Zuckerberg will be in D.C. the rest of the week. On Wednesday, a spokesperson said he would be meeting "with policymakers and talk about future internet regulation." No public events had been planned, the spokesperson said.

The dinner meeting was Zuckerberg's first known official return to D.C. to face lawmakers since his 2018 testimonies in front of both chambers of Congress following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Those testimonies marked the beginning of an era of intense tech scrutiny by lawmakers, who have held multiple hearings with Facebook and its peers over the past year about user privacy, content moderation and competition.

Facebook is facing at least two probes by the FTC and a bipartisan group of state attorneys general into its competitive practices. The Justice Department previously announced a broad review of the tech industry, without naming specific companies of focus.

All this comes on the heels of a $5 billion settlement Facebook struck with the FTC ending a probe into its privacy practices. The investigation began after reports revealed that political data firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user consent to target U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election.

During this visit to D.C., Warner said on CNBC, "I think there may be perhaps a little more humility coming from Facebook." Since Zuckerberg's 2018 testimony, Warner said, "there's been quite a few whacks on Facebook and Google and others over that last year."

Warner said he believes tech companies are starting to understand "that the longer the federal government delays" legislation, "the bar is being raised as other European countries or individual states and other nations around the world put regulatory regimes in place. And they're simply raising the ceiling to a new floor."

Warner told MSNBC he believes Zuckerberg "realizes that self-regulation is not going to work." Zuckerberg in an op-ed in The Washington Post previously outlined how he believes tech should be regulated.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also attended the dinner Wednesday, a spokesperson for his office confirmed to CNBC. Blumenthal sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Commerce Committee. At a hearing Wednesday about the responsibility social media companies have to moderate violent content, Blumenthal questioned a Facebook representative about the company's content removal practices. On Tuesday, Blumenthal pressed the heads of the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice to work swiftly in their investigations of Big Tech at a hearing on antitrust.

"I was impressed by a number of the ideas and interests of Facebook in advancing privacy on the internet but I hope that we also can continue the conversation," Blumenthal told NBC News. He said he felt they may have reached some common ground on privacy issues and that they also had a "positive" discussion about the ways Facebook's technology can help "make the internet safer."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, one of Big Tech's biggest conservative critics, also met with Zuckerberg Thursday. Following the meeting, Hawley told reporters he suggested that Zuckerberg sell Instagram and WhatsApp as an act of good faith. Facebook's acquisitions of both services are thought to be a focus of regulators scrutinizing its competitive practices.

"I think it's safe to say that he was not receptive," Hawley said of Zuckerberg's response.

Hawley, a member of the antitrust subcommittee, has pushed a number of bills to regulate the tech industry, including one with Warner. Hawley has accused tech companies of censoring conservative viewpoints and introduced legislation that would tie their legal immunity from liability for users' content to audits that prove their content practices are "politically neutral."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee who attended Wednesday's hearing, met with Zuckerberg on Wednesday night, her office confirmed.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, met with Zuckerberg on Thursday, a spokesperson for his office confirmed.

"Sen. Lee and Mr. Zuckerberg touched on a number of topics including bias against conservatives on Facebook's platform, government regulation of digital platforms, antitrust enforcement, Section 230 liability, and data-privacy issues," according to the spokesperson.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, a member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, told NBC News he will be meeting with Zuckerberg Thursday evening, where he said he plans to discuss the company's responsibility to moderate content on its platform without censoring political views. Zuckerberg also met with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on Thursday, CNBC confirmed.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told CNBC that Facebook had reached out to schedule a meeting on Thursday but later said Moran will not be able to meet due to scheduling conflicts.

-CNBC's Ylan Mui and Mary Catherine Wellons contributed to this report.

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