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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces sharp questioning in Congress about Libra cryptocurrency

Zuckerberg grilled on Capitol Hill

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified Wednesday in front of the House Financial Services Committee about the company's planned cryptocurrency, Libra, trying to alleviate concerns that it could sidestep regulators. The company has been under fire on a range of issues recently, including Facebook's handling of political ads and efforts to combat misinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

It was the Facebook chief's first testimony to Congress since April 2018.

Zuckerberg faced hostile and bipartisan questions, and said he would not let Facebook move forward with Libra unless he had explicit approval from all U.S. financial regulators. But members of the House Financial Services committee were not convinced.

Representative Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said Facebook's cryptocurrency would "create many concerns" and argued that maybe Facebook should be broken up. On the Republican side, Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri asked Zuckerberg why several high-profile corporations have recently departed the Libra project. Zuckerberg, momentarily at a loss for words, noted that "it's a risky enterprise."

Zuckerberg, in prepared remarks that Facebook released Tuesday, aimed to reassure lawmakers that his company won't try to evade financial regulators as it readies Libra. Facebook "will not be a part of launching the Libra payments system anywhere in the world unless all U.S. regulators approve it," he said. That's a stronger statement than Facebook official David Marcus made to Congress in July, when he said the company will not activate Libra until it has "fully addressed regulatory concerns and received appropriate approvals."

Zuckerberg's prepared statement also said, "We support Libra delaying its launch until it has fully addressed U.S. regulatory concerns." 

"I believe this is something that needs to get built, but I understand we're not the ideal messenger right now. We've faced a lot of issues over the past few years," his statement said, noting that a digital currency, intended for people who can't access bank accounts, dovetails with the company's mission of empowering people.

Zuckerberg also played the China card in his remarks, urging regulators to act quickly "While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn't waiting. China is moving quickly to launch similar ideas in the coming months," he said.

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Libra has faced intense pushback from U.S. and European regulators. The project has lost seven of its original 28 partners in recent weeks, including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard.

While Wednesday's hearing is focused on the digital currency, the full range of Facebook's policies, conduct and market dominance is attracting congressional attention.

Meanwhile, the push to break up the world's largest social network appears to be moving forward. A probe by state attorneys general to investigate possible antitrust abuses now counts 47 participants, New York Attorney General Letitia James said Tuesday.

The Facebook CEO has cited competition from China as a compelling reason against breaking up the company.

The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee are all conducting investigations of Facebook and the other huge tech companies amid accusations of abuse of their market power to crush competition.

Irina Ivanova and Grace Segers contributed to this report

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