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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg seeks to reassure wary lawmakers about Libra, elections in rare D.C. trip

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg visits Capitol Hill on Sept. 19. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers in a private meeting this week that his company’s controversial digital currency would not be launched anywhere in the world until it receives the backing of regulators in the United States.

The comment about Libra came during a dinner Wednesday night in Washington with top Senate Democrats, one of the Facebook chief’s many stops during a rare visit to the nation’s capital that has brought him face to face with policymakers who have been loudly skeptical of the tech giant’s business practices, including its efforts to protect privacy and stop the spread of disinformation.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who organized the dinner at Ris, an upscale American restaurant, and serves on the Senate Banking Committee, said in an interview Thursday that Zuckerberg said the Libra Association, the entity managing the cryptocurrency, “would not be launching its product without the buy-in from U.S. regulators.”

Facebook confirmed the details of the exchange. Zuckerberg — who spent Thursday meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill — declined to answer questions as he navigated past a throng of reporters.

Behind the scenes, Zuckerberg heard an earful from lawmakers about the need for his company to better protect the data it collects and guard against political interference in the 2020 election, members of Congress later revealed. Democrats and Republicans also raised competition concerns about Facebook and its sprawling empire, which includes WhatsApp and Instagram, at a moment when state and federal regulators are conducting antitrust probes.

Zuckerberg also met privately with President Trump, Facebook confirmed. Trump tweeted that they had a “Nice meeting” in the Oval Office.

The criticisms about privacy and competition even led one of Facebook’s toughest foes, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), to request during his private meeting with Zuckerberg that Facebook sell WhatsApp and Instagram, an audacious proposal that the company executive did not support.

“I think he was a little taken off guard,” Hawley said. “I think that he felt it was not a great idea.”

Since Facebook unveiled Libra in June, the company has faced skepticism from lawmakers who are wary of the tech giant — in light of recent scandals — and its ability to manage a monumental change to the financial system.

The Trump administration expressed early concerns that Facebook has not fully grappled with the threats of money laundering and other risks associated with Libra. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell has said the cryptocurrency poses “serious concerns.” Even Trump has weighed in, tweeting that Libra lacked “dependability” before suggesting it should be subject to banking regulations.

The criticisms set the stage for two tense congressional hearings in July with David Marcus, who oversees Facebook’s work on blockchain, the technology underpinning cryptocurrency. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, blasted Facebook as “dangerous,” adding that it would be “crazy to give them a chance to experiment with people’s bank accounts,” given the company’s previous missteps.

After the hearing, lawmakers including Warner said they had received mixed signals from Facebook about what would happen with Libra in other countries if U.S. regulators sought to stop its launch. Facebook said in written replies to the Senate earlier this month that it believed the Libra Association, which technically operates independently, “will not offer the Libra digital currency in any jurisdiction until it has fully addressed regulatory concerns and received appropriate approvals in that jurisdiction.”

Zuckerberg’s assurances on Wednesday that Libra hinges greatly on U.S. support, however, cleared up some of the doubt, said Warner, who stressed that lawmakers think Facebook has “got to get it right before you launch it upon a society.”

Zuckerberg’s visit to the Capitol is his first known trip here since he testified last year for roughly 10 hours in front of lawmakers furious with Facebook over its privacy scandals. On Wednesday, the company said the purpose of the visit was to discuss the “future of Internet regulation,” months after Zuckerberg called on regulators to take a “more active role” on issues related to Internet policy, including areas such as online extremism, political advertising and data privacy.

“The rules governing the Internet allowed a generation of entrepreneurs to build services that changed the world and created a lot of value in people’s lives,” Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post in March. “It’s time to update these rules to define clear responsibilities for people, companies and governments going forward.”

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg met with top Democrats including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has sharply criticized Facebook for the way it collects and monetizes user data. Zuckerberg’s agenda Thursday included sessions with leading Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the leader of a key antitrust subcommittee, who later said the duo discussed competition issues.

Zuckerberg is set to huddle Friday with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has investigated Silicon Valley’s efforts to defend U.S. elections from foreign interference. And he’ll pay a visit to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the leader of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of its top antitrust committee, according to a person familiar with the matter not authorized to speak on record. The panel has embarked on a broad antitrust review of the tech industry. Last week, it issued sweeping demands for documents from Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies.

In an interview, Blumenthal said he pressed Zuckerberg on the importance of protecting users’ privacy and lawmakers’ work to write the country’s first-ever consumer privacy law. Neither lawmakers nor the Facebook executive committed to specific legislation, but Blumenthal described Zuckerberg as “receptive.”

Blumenthal said he sought to impart a “strong sense of urgency about the need to safeguard our democratic institutions,” particularly after Russian influence during the 2016 election.

“My feeling from what he said is Facebook shares that sense of urgency,” Blumenthal said. “But, again, these sentiments and perspectives were not specific action, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Correction: Warner is a member of the Senate Banking Committee but not the top-ranking Democrat. An earlier version of this report incorrectly described his position.

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