Al Franken Warns About Big Tech’s Control Over Our Lives

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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The stark dominance of big tech companies “threaten our security, freedoms and democracy,” Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said Wednesday.

Citing a number of revelations, including Russia’s apparent attempts to manipulate social media to create a further wedge in America’s already divisive political climate, Franken says that “we desperately need to conduct vigorous oversight — in the form of investigations and hearings — to fully understand current practices and the potential for harm.” Franken’s remarks came during an event at New America’s Open Markets Institute, and were adapted for an op-ed in The Guardian.

Along with the Russian campaign, Franken worries about tech companies’ utilization of users’ data.

“While I appreciate that these companies have taken steps to improve transparency of their use of Americans’ personal information in recent years, unfortunately, accumulating massive troves of information isn’t just a side project for them; it’s their whole business model,” Franken wrote. “We are not their customers; we are their product.”

Franken has voiced his privacy concerns many times before, even directly calling out particular tech giants. He sent a letter to Apple in September voicing his apprehension over the new iPhone X’s “Face ID” technology. Franken not only described his reservations, but also sought further details on how the facial recognition tool works and its implications. He succeeded in grabbing Apple’s attention, as the company eventually responded in October.

Franken also worries that these companies, specifically Google and Facebook, will continue to almost unilaterally “control internet news traffic referrals, meaning that three out of four times an internet user accesses a news story online, they get there via Google or Facebook.”

Facebook and Google, in total, account for roughly 90 percent of the growth in new advertising revenue, leaving some small news publications desperately grasping for funding, while also worrying about their respective futures. (RELATED: Facebook And Google Dominate More Than Just Ad Revenue)

“With this unprecedented power, platforms have both the incentive and the ability to redirect into their own pockets the advertising dollars that once fueled the newspaper business,” Franken asserts.

And it wasn’t just Google, Facebook, and Apple, which are certainly growing in power, but are also more recently growing as a frequent punching bag of liberals and conservatives alike. Franken also confronted Amazon’s ever-expanding business empire.

“Currently, Amazon controls over 83% of e-book sales, nearly 90% of online print sales, and almost 99% of digital audio sales,” he explained. “Amazon has since used its unprecedented monopsony power to force publishers to agree to contract terms and conditions that the publishers say have stalled price competition among book distributors, ultimately resulting in higher e-book prices for consumers.” (RELATED: Clinton’s Commerce Undersecretary Wants To End Big Tech’s Monopoly)

Franken’s commentary is essentially a battle cry, arguing public officials and the tech companies they intend to regulate, should probably brace for deep changes, especially due to the aforementioned statement expressing a need for “vigorous oversight.” He wrote:

… as lawmakers, it is incumbent upon us to ask the broader questions. How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives? How is it using our personal information to strengthen its reach and its bottom line? Are these companies engaging in anticompetitive behavior that restricts the free flow of information and commerce? Are they failing to take simple precautions to respect our privacy and protect our democracy? And finally, what role should these companies play in our lives, and how do we ensure transparency and accountability from them going forward?

What remains to be seen if the senator’s fellow colleagues will take up the call to arms.

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