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Why Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg met with Sen. Mike Lee, Trump and other lawmakers this week

The visits come amid antitrust investigations and proposed legislation that threatens Big Tech’s profitable business model.

FILE - In this April 11, 2018, photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens to a question as he testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Amid mounting threats of a regulatory crackdown on its business practices, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met privately with President Trump and several senators Thursday, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

The pair talked for about 30 minutes in Lee’s office on a number of topics including a perception of bias against conservatives on Facebook’s platform, government regulation, antitrust enforcement, data privacy and and federal liability exemption for digital platforms.

“It went well,” Lee spokesman Conn Carrol said of the private meeting.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
FILE - Amid mounting threats of a regulatory crackdown on its business practices, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met privately with senators Thursday, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Earlier in the day, Zuckerberg met with Trump, who tweeted that it was a “nice meeting,” adding a photo, which was also posted on Facebook, of the two shaking hands.

A Facebook spokesman said Zuckerberg “had a good, constructive meeting with President Trump at the White House today.”

The private meetings are happening amid antitrust investigations by a House Judiciary subcommittee, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice. State attorneys general, including Utah’s Sean Reyes, have also launched coordinated probes into whether Big Tech is using its market power to thwart competition and harm consumers.

Lee, chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee, is concerned about antitrust violations, but his harshest criticism has been directed toward the Justice Department and FTC over reports the agencies are squabbling over how to proceed in their separate investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

During a hearing Tuesday, Lee questioned the government’s system of two agencies investigating the companies.

“We need robust investigations and enforcement of the antitrust laws, especially in the tech arena. That objective is likely to be hindered if the agencies are stumbling over each other trying to investigate the same companies for the same conduct,” he said in a statement released Wednesday. “I wouldn’t recommend that (FTC or Justice) get any additional resources until they demonstrate their willingness to put the interests of consumers above their bureaucratic gamesmanship.”

Congress has also been debating a privacy law that could sharply rein in the ability of digital companies to collect and make money off users’ personal data, The Associated Press reported. A national law, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S., could allow people to see or prohibit use of their data.

Zuckerberg began his rounds Wednesday with Sen. Maria Cantwell, of Washington, the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. She told Politico she and the Facebook CEO discussed election interference on social media, as well as data privacy.

A Facebook spokesperson told Politico that Zuckerberg would discuss ideas for “future internet regulation” at the meetings.

At Facebook’s request, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, helped organize a dinner meeting for Zuckerberg and a group of senators.

“The participants had a discussion touching on multiple 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,” Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, said in a statement.

Zuckerberg is also meeting with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., an outspoken conservative critic of Big Tech, whose proposal to require digital platforms to prove they don’t use political bias in filtering content is particularly alarming to tech companies.

“Failing to secure a bias-free audit from the government would mean a social media platform loses its long-held immunity from legal action,” the AP reported.

Warner and Hawley have also proposed legislation that would strike at the heart of Big Tech’s highly profitable business model of gathering data on users habits, and leveraging that information to help advertisers target their messages to specific customers.

Warner told The Associated Press he wanted Zuckerberg to hear his Senate colleagues’ “enormous concerns about privacy and about protecting the integrity of our political system.”

Their message for the Facebook chief was “self-regulation is not going to be the answer,” Warner said. “I think Zuckerberg understood that.”

This week’s meetings marked Zuckerberg’s first public visit to Washington since he testified before Congress last spring about privacy, election interference and other issues.

In his last visit, Zuckerberg called for “new rules” that would tighten regulations to protect consumers’ data, control harmful online content, and ensure election integrity and data portability, AP reported.