The Buzz

Hawley presses Facebook’s Zuckerberg at meeting to sell Instagram in name of privacy

Sen. Josh Hawley urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to sell off Instagram and other holdings to demonstrate the company’s commitment to data privacy during an hour-long meeting with the tech mogul Thursday.

Zuckerberg, who founded the social media empire as a Harvard undergraduate 14 years ago, traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers as Congress considers a host of new regulations for the tech industry. Lawmakers in both parties have floated the idea of breaking up the company.

Zuckerberg did not take questions during his visit to Capitol Hill.

Hawley, the freshman Missouri Republican who has emerged as one of the tech industry’s harshest critics, spoke for 15 minutes to a crowd of reporters following his meeting with the billionaire. He described a sometimes tense meeting in which he pressed the Facebook CEO about data privacy, alleged bias against conservatives and social media addiction.

“My concern is that they’re trying to integrate data across all of these platforms, taking it without people’s consent, using it without their knowledge. So I said to him prove that you’re serious about data: Sell WhatsApp and sell Instagram,” Hawley said, referencing the messaging and photo apps that Facebook owns.

“That’s what they should do. They should spin them off. Sell them right now… Prove that you’re not afraid of competition,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that he was not receptive to those suggestions.”

Hawley said he told Zuckerberg that the company’s recent $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations was a joke and noted that the company’s stock has gone up since the settlement.

He said he also urged Zuckerberg to submit Facebook to a third-party audit of its content moderation policies, in the wake of a controversy sparked when Facebook fact-checked a a video by the anti-abortion group Live Action. It prompted accusations of anti-conservative censorship.

Hawley said Zuckerberg admitted to him that the company had erred.

“He said that they made a mistake. There was clearly bias. Those were his words. He said there was clearly bias in the Live Action decision, they were wrong to have censored Live Action, there was a problem with their supposed independent fact check, that he’s very concerned about it and that this is in his words an issue they have struggled with for years,” Hawley recounted.

“And I said to him, listen, this is the same sort of song and dance that we hear from Facebook every time it gets caught, whether it’s censoring, whether it’s taking people’s data without telling them. It’s always we made a mistake, we’ll try to do better.”

Hawley has introduced legislation that would require Facebook and other social media companies to undergo audits by the Federal Trade Commission to maintain legal protections that currently shield the firms from being held liable for user generated content.

He has also introduced a bill that would bar Facebook’s use of infinite scroll, which allows users to endlessly move through the content in their newsfeed, in an effort to combat social media addiction.

Hawley said that he discussed both these bills with Zuckerberg and challenged Facebook to fund a research project into the effects of social media on loneliness and mental well-being.

“If Facebook’s serious about this, they should fund it. They have a lot of money,” he said.

Despite his frequent criticism of the company, Hawley has been supported in the past by Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who donated to the Republican’s campaigns for Missouri attorney general and U.S. Senate.

Zuckerberg had also been scheduled to meet with Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who has spent more than a year partnering with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal on a bipartisan data privacy bill that has still yet to be released.

The meeting was canceled due a scheduling conflict as Moran returned to Kansas earlier in the day, according to his office.

Zuckerberg declined to comment on what he hoped to accomplish with the various meetings, which have largely been interpreted as an effort to respond to the backlash against the tech industry on Capitol Hill.

“I think that he’s trying to maintain contact,” Hawley said when asked what Zuckerberg hoped to get out of the meeting.

“This is the first time I’ve ever met him, so in this case I think to meet and to say where they are and say that they’re trying to do better,” Hawley said. “But again, the way you can show you’re doing better is actually do something. Talk is cheap. Do something.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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