Senators give Facebook's Zuckerberg 'an earful' at dinner in D.C.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got “an earful” from a group of U.S. senators at a restaurant in the nation’s capital Wednesday evening.

Zuckerberg is back in Washington privately meeting with lawmakers about internet regulation. It is Zuckerberg’s first known visit to Capitol Hill since he testified before Congress in 2018.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Yahoo Finance he organized a dinner meeting with several senators at Facebook’s (FB) request.

“I think Zuckerberg wanted to hear the...state of our thinking and I've been quite harsh in some of my criticism of Facebook and I've got a series of bills, bi-partisan, that I think would put some rules of the road in place,” Warner said. “But I really wanted him to hear from my colleagues, many of them who had maybe not weighed in on these issues in a large way — how concerned they were as well.”

The group included Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) who in a hearing just hours earlier, blasted antitrust officials for a lack of urgency to take on big tech companies.

Zuckerberg also met with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the CEO was met with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — who has called Facebook “creepy” and a “monopoly” — and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee.

Self-regulation isn’t going to work

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Warner said the senators at the dinner meeting covered a wide range of topics with Zuckerberg — including data privacy, transparency, election security and Libra.

Warner said Zuckerberg realizes self-regulation isn’t going to work.

“I think they’re ready to move forward. I want to see, as well, that same cooperation level from Google and Twitter,” said Warner. “The longer we wait to act at the federal level — all they're doing is raising the floor. Because as other countries and other states move forward, then when the federal government moves...the old ceiling will become a floor and they may end up with an even greater regime.”

Warner has introduced several bipartisan bills to put rules of the road in place for tech companies, but so far Congress has not acted on any significant legislation to regulate big tech. He urged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up his bills.

“Give us a chance to debate these on the floor. I think they'll get 70 votes, If I'm wrong, so be it,” said Warner.

The senator said lawmakers need to move past broad conversations about big tech and start drafting specific proposals they can pass.

“The hard work of saying, ‘okay, let's go through a piece of legislation’ and see where we agree and see where we disagree,” said Warner.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company's use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

As we get better, the Russians get better

Warner is the top Democratic senator on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.

He blames reluctance from the Trump administration, at least in part, for Congress’s inaction on tech legislation.

Warner told Yahoo Finance the White House has criticized big tech, but still “hates to get into anything — for example, around election security that involves these platforms — because the president acts like that somehow undermines the credibility of this election. I’m not here to re-litigate 2016.”

Warner said Facebook and other big social media companies have gotten better preventing bad actors from trying to interfere in elections. Smaller platforms, he says, still have work to do.

“As we get better, the Russians and others get better,” said Warner.

The senator warned protecting the 2020 election will require continual work against deepfake technology that’s growing more and more sophisticated.

“That's going to take a much greater level of technology scrutiny. We're going to need our law enforcement and Intel community to have the tools they need, and that's going to have to be done collaboratively,” said Warner.

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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