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No joke: Al Franken rings alarm over Facebook, Google

Minnesota Senator warns American Bar Association audience about privacy implications when monolithic tech firms become unaccountable.

Is Senator Al Franken spoiling for a fight with Silicon Valley over privacy?

"When a company is able to establish a dominant market position, consumers lose meaningful choices," Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, told a gathering during a speech before the American Bar Association's Antitrust Section.

In particular, Franken, who also is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, singled out Facebook and Google in a way that is not likely to warm many cockles on those two campuses.

For example:

If you don't want your search results shared with other Google sites -- if you don't want some kind of superprofile being created for you based on everything you search, every site you surf, and every video you watch on YouTube -- you will have to find a search engine that's comparable to Google. Not easy.

If you want a free e-mail 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 e-mail service.

Or this:

If you use Facebook -- as I do -- Facebook in all likelihood has a unique digital file of your face, one that can be as accurate as a fingerprint and that can be used to identify you in a photo of a large crowd.

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? The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy.

Google declined comment and Facebook had not responded by publication time.

It's not the first time Franken and Silicon Valley have mixed it up. Franken was a supporter of the Stop Online Piracy Act which was opposed overwhelmingly by Valley firms. There was no shortage of cynics who believed that Franken got behind SOPA owing to his support from Hollywood, which favored the bill's passage. He currently (and was previously) a supporter of Protect IP, the Senate equivalent of SOPA. In late January, Lamar Smith, the sponsor of the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, which he heads, announced a postponement of the legislation "until there is wider agreement on a solution."

You can read Franken's entire speech here.