Al Franken Just Gave the Speech Big Tech Has Been Dreading
Sen. Al Franken delivered some of sharpest criticism yet about the dangers of tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon during a speech on Wednesday, encouraging regulators, as well as lawmakers in both parties, to better police the market power of dominant online platforms.
“Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?” Franken asked, in a speech to a Washington think tank. A handful of companies decide what Americans “see, read, and buy,” dominating access to information and facilitating the spread of disinformation, he added.
“Last week’s hearings demonstrate that these companies might not be up to the challenge they created for themselves,” said Franken.
The 25-minute speech was another sign that the political firestorm from last week’s congressional hearings about Russian election interference will not quickly fade away. Pressure from Washington has already prompted tech companies to shift their positions on proposed legislation unrelated to Russia, like a bill to curb online sex trafficking. Franken’s remarks hint at the possibility of increased constraints on Silicon Valley’s power from prominent Democrats, who traditionally have been the sector’s biggest allies.
Franken has not shied away from voicing concerns about tech’s encroachments on privacy and competition in the past, but Wednesday’s criticism was unusually sweeping, tying together a revised narrative about Silicon Valley that only emerged in glimpses during the Russia hearings. Franken argued that the same control over consumers that facilitated the spread of Russian propaganda on social media also help Facebook and Google siphon advertising revenue from other publishers and help Amazon dictate terms to content creators and smaller sellers. Tech giants are incentivized to disregard consumer privacy, said Franken. “Accumulating massive troves of information isn’t just a side project for them. It’s their whole business model,” he said. “We are not their customers, we are their product.”
Franken’s speech kicked off an event hosted by Open Markets Institute, a think tank devoted to fighting monopoly power. The group is led by former journalist Barry Lynn, who gained fame when his group was asked to leave New America, a left-leaning think tank financed by Google, after Lynn praised a harsh European antitrust ruling against Google. Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered a similar critique of tech at an Open Markets conference last year.
A lot has changed since then, including revelations about how Russia used Facebook, Twitter, and Google to sow discord in the US ahead of the 2016 election. That’s helped make concern about the power of tech giants more bipartisan. Franken quoted his Republican colleague Sen. John Kennedy, who struck a nerve in last week’s hearings when he pressed Facebook on collecting personal data and said the power of the platforms scared him. If voters share the same concerns, anti-tech messaging could become a populist issue in the 2018 election..
Franken’s proposed solution to tech’s power? More hearings, investigations, and perhaps rules that would require Google and Facebook, in particular, not to discriminate in the content they distribute, much as internet providers may not favor some content over others under so-called net-neutrality rules. “As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here,” said Franken. “No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t,” he said. “Facebook, Google, and Amazon, like ISPs, should be neutral in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platform.”
Google, Facebook, and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As with much of the backlash against big tech, Franken’s suggestions contain their own contradictions. Applying net neutrality rules to Google or Facebook, for example, could make them obligated to distribute content from political extremists and even foreign propaganda under some circumstances. Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, lack of solutions never stopped a Congressional hearing.
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