Al Franken Warns Facebook, Google Users: 'You Are Their Product'

Web giants are becoming too big to care, Senator Al Franken warned Thursday.

Franken argued that the growing dominance of companies such as Facebook and Google risks making them immune to market pressure and more likely to violate users' privacy in the quest for profits.

In a speech delivered Thursday to the American Bar Association, Franken maintained that privacy should be treated as an antitrust issue, noting that Americans' right to privacy "can be a casualty of anti-competitive practices online."

"The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy," Franken said. "[W]hen companies become so dominant that they can violate their users' privacy without worrying about market pressure, all that's left is the incentive to get more and more information about you. That's a big problem if you care about privacy, and it's a problem that the antitrust community should be talking about."

But Franken isn't buying it. In his remarks, he directly disputed Google's claim that ditching its services is a breeze. Users who "don't want some kind of super-profile being created" by the web giant face the "not easy" task of finding a search engine equivalent to Google's, Franken said.

"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," said Franken, who was later courted on Twitter by Microsoft's Frank Shaw in a tweet encouraging Franken to consider Hotmail.

Internet companies would be wise to take note of Franken's stance -- he is the chairman of a judiciary subcommittee focused on privacy and technology, after all, and has repeatedly reprimanded companies suspected of violating users' privacy.

Franken charged that current legislation defends Americans against the government's prying eyes, but fails to safeguard consumers' personal information against malfeasance by private companies. Web firms have countered that laws could stifle innovation and maintained that legislation is unnecessary: protecting users' privacy is good business, they say, arguing that losing users' trust would mean losing users' business.

"Anyone who interacts with these corporations is out on a limb when it comes to legal protections for this very personal information: your words, your likeness, your whereabouts," Franken said. "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.'"

He reiterated an argument often heard in Silicon Valley circles: that companies offering free services, such as Facebook or Gmail, have become more accountable to advertisers than to their users, who have become the product, rather than the customer.

"[A]ccumulating data about you isn't just a strange hobby for these corporations. It's their whole business model," said Franken. "And you are not their client. You are their product."

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