Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg spoke before a packed room Wednesday at the Newseum, where he fielded questions about his company, his politics and the larger role of the tech community in Washington, D.C.
The CEO spoke for about an hour with interviewer James Bennet of the Atlantic, and also fielded questions from the audience, a mix of journalists, tech policy experts and local entrepreneurs.
Zuckerberg, who donned his signature hoodie for the talk, hasn’t made an official visit to Washington in three years. But his latest trip comes amid a backdrop of more bi-coastal dialogue over issues such as immigration and national security.
Zuckerberg has been a major part of that move, founding two organizations dedicated to his personal causes. One, Internet.org, puts forward the lofty and optimistic promise to connect the next 5 billion people. The second, Fwd.us, has been set up to lobby on the issue of immigration — a problem close to the tech industry’s heart as it looks to swell company ranks with talented engineers from around the world.
Comprehensive immigration reform, Zuckerberg said, is as vital to this country’s economy as reforming the rules to allow highly skilled workers to work in the U.S., and he believes it makes sense to do both at the same time.
“Eleven million people is a lot of people who are being treated unfairly right now,” he said to applause.
Asked about the conflicts between the philosophies of Washington and Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg said he thinks that the government works — on the whole — and isn’t the broken-down system that cynics often say it is. Still, he did say that he’s had to adjust his Silicon Valley sensibilities to operate in the political world. For example, Fwd.us faced harsh criticism after funding political ads for conservative politicians on topics other than immigration. Messages supporting the Keystone XL pipeline in May even lost the group backing from Tesla chief executive Elon Musk.
“There’s a lot of debug to making this work,” Zuckerberg said. “One thing that has been interesting and challenging is trying to get senior folks on both parties to meet. ... There were difficulties there that I was shocked about.”
He declined to say where he falls on the political spectrum himself, saying that he is “pro-knowledge economy.”
He did, however, criticize the U.S. government for not being more transparent about data collection through organizations such as the National Security Agency. Such programs, he said, undermine public trust in companies such as Facebook, which has joined others in asking the government for permission to release more information on requests.
The CEO met privately with House Republicans and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Wednesday. He will meet with more politicians on both sides of the aisle Thursday, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Commerce committee — the panel tasked with oversight of Facebook and other Web companies.
“As an Internet social media company that has become a part of the lives of millions of Americans, and since Facebook falls under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee, the chairman would like to hear Mr. Zuckerberg’s current and future plans for the company,” said a committee spokesman in a statement.
In a statement, Facebook said that Zuckerberg’s meetings Wednesday on the Hill went well.
“Mark is here to listen and to learn, and to share his perspective on the knowledge economy, the importance of immigration reform and a number of other issues members of Congress are interested in. He knows how busy members are and he’s thrilled that they made time to meet with him today,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement.
(Washington Post Co. chairman Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)
Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.