by Nilay Patel
March 30, 2012
Senator Al Franken
Senator Al Franken
gave a rousing speech
to the American Bar Association's Antitrust Section last night,
calling for greater antitrust oversight of large media and tech companies as
a way to ensure greater privacy protections for Americans.
That's not surprising by itself - Franken is the
chair of the new Senate subcommittee on
Privacy, Technology, and the Law,
after all - but the senator took the opportunity to blast Google for its
every incentive to share private data in the absence of meaningful
"You are not their client. You are their
Franken opened by talking about his opposition
to both the
NBC/Comcast merger and the
failed AT&T/T-Mobile deal, but he was
most blunt about the privacy threat facing internet users every day.
Consumers are "out on a limb when it comes to
legal protections" for personal information, said Franken, who lamented that
the protections citizens have against government intrusion against privacy
don't apply to corporations.
The Fourth Amendment doesn't apply to corporations.
The Freedom of Information Act doesn't
apply to Silicon Valley. And you can't impeach Google if it breaks its
"Don't be evil" campaign pledge.
Franken went on to say that simply relying on the market to protect against
gross violations of privacy is fine in theory, but that companies like
Facebook have become so dominant that the market itself is
"What we're seeing is that, just like
Americans' pocketbooks and access to information, their right to privacy
can be a casualty of anti-competitive practices," said Franken.
"When a company is able to establish a
dominant market position, consumers lose meaningful choices."
"The more dominant these companies become,
the less incentive they have to respect your
The Senator most specifically made reference to
information from across its suite of services to target ads to users.
"The more dominant these companies become
over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to
respect your privacy," he said, noting that if you don't want Google to
create a "some kind of super profile... you will have to find a search
engine that's comparable to Google. Not easy."
If you want a free email service that doesn't
use your words to target ads to you, you'll have to figure out how to port
years and years of Gmail messages somewhere else, which is about as easy as
developing your own free email service.
You might not like that Facebook shares your political opinions with
Politico, but are you really going to delete all the photos, all the posts,
all the connections - the presence you've spent years establishing on the
world's dominant social network?
Franken wasn't entirely negative, saying that Google and Facebook had
"amazing, innovative, helpful services," and
that "it isn't time for alarm bells yet," as "there are still some lines
Google and Facebook aren't planning to cross."
But Franken also cautioned that the lure of
crossing those lines would become greater as both companies become larger,
"essentially tremendously innovative and
profitable advertising companies" whose incentive to collect data is
held at bay only by slowly-fading market pressure.
That's a big problem if you care about privacy,
and it's a problem that the antitrust community should be talking about...
Shouldn't we be concerned that, as these
companies that trade in your personal information keep getting bigger and
bigger, they become less and less accountable?
Franken closed by saying that it's possible the AT&T/T-Mobile merger fight
had potentially opened the door to greater antitrust enforcement efforts on
the part of the government.
"Perhaps we're now at a point where we can
have a new conversation about antitrust in America," he said.
"We need to remain constantly vigilant to
ensure that big corporations aren't abusing their market positions -
especially in dynamic markets where technology is changing the playing
field at great speed and government regulators are struggling to keep