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Al Franken lashes out at Facebook over Cambridge Analytica scandal

The former senator says the social network has no incentive to act in users' best interests because it has no rivals and users have nowhere else to go.

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Al Franken

Al Franken: Facebook's business model made the company "a lot of money but left users vulnerable to having their data taken by companies that they never heard of."

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In his first major public appearance since leaving office, former US Sen. Al Franken blasted Facebook over consumer privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Speaking earlier this week at the Privacy XChange Forum, a cybersecurity conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Franken discussed how the business models of Facebook and search giant Google, built on digital advertising, are at odds with their users' privacy interests.

He also said Congress' inaction on these issues has made it complicit in ensuring these companies, which spend millions of dollars each year on lobbying, could harvest users' information and allow others to misuse it.  

"As Facebook and Google have gotten bigger and bigger, they have lost all incentive to act in their users' best interest, because well, their users have nowhere else to go," Franken said.

He noted that if left unchecked, the misuse of user data will threaten the very foundation of democracy. He also pointed to the dissemination, on social networks and other internet platforms, of misinformation.

"If we can't have a political discourse where we agree on basic, objective facts, then our democratic government will continue to be polarized and paralyzed," he said, referring to the Russians' efforts to spread fake news online during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

The comments come as lawmakers in Washington consider legislation to protect consumers' data following the revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, with ties to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, obtained data on as many as 87 million Facebook users.

"What happened with Cambridge Analytica wasn't an accident," he said. "It was an exploitation of Facebook's business model. This business model made Facebook a lot of money but left users vulnerable to having their data taken by companies that they never heard of."

Franken referred to Congress' failed attempts to pass legislation to protect consumer data online and said those failures are part of the reason Facebook, Google and others have been allowed to go unchecked in their harvesting of information. Specifically, he mentioned a bill he authored called the Location Privacy Protection Act, which sparked intense lobbying from the tech industry and never became law.

He also said that even as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was testifying before Congress last month, acknowledging that facial recognition technology should be a case in which companies must explicitly ask for users' permission, the company was lobbying lawmakers in Illinois to kill legislation that would implement the strongest set of facial recognition protections in the country.

"This is the kind of stuff that Facebook and other internet companies do to paralyze American privacy laws," Franken said.

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Franken said Facebook's and Google's market power has made it nearly impossible for consumers to avoid these companies' services. And he talked about Facebook's strategy to gobble up small startups that threaten to compete with the social network and to copy new ideas from the companies it can't acquire.

"Facebook doesn't have to care about the privacy and security of users' online information, because there is no mass exodus when it violates those values," he said. "They have no real competitors when users feel they can't walk away."

And he added that the fact that Facebook and Google control 75 percent of all news referrals online gives them "unprecedented power."

Franken urged lawmakers to do something, saying the foundation of American democracy is at stake if they choose to sit on the sidelines.

"If we do not act to address these problems, all of this will happen again," he said, speaking of the Russian meddling online during the 2016 presidential election. "Maybe at the hands of the Russians, maybe at the hands of a private company like Cambridge Analytica, maybe at the hands of other bad actors."

Franken left the senate in December amid sexual misconduct allegations. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota, has taken over Franken's seat.

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