by Nilay Patel

March 30, 2012

from TheVerge Website



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 controversial new privacy policy and suggest that Facebook would soon have every incentive to share private data in the absence of meaningful competition.


"You are not their client. You are their product."


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 Google and Facebook have become so dominant that the market itself is constrained.

"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 privacy."


The Senator most specifically made reference to Google's new privacy policy, which allows the search giant to use personal 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 provided,

"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, calling them,

"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 up."