When you’re as big as Google and Facebook, who’s going to tell you what to do?
In a recent speech to the American Bar Association, U.S. Senator (and former Saturday Night Live funnyman) Al Franken warned that web giants may soon become too powerful to control.
Franken said companies like Facebook and Google face little market pressure because they’re so dominant, which could make them more likely to violate users’ privacy in pursuit of profits.
In recent years, citizens and government officials have become increasingly vocal about how quickly privacy–even the notion of privacy–seems to have eroded online for everyone.
“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,’” wrote Bianca Bosker of The Huffington Post.
For years now, Senator Franken has made a point of reminding his audiences that companies like Facebook and Google gather and sell data about their users–lots of it, and seemingly without compunction. Is it because they don’t fear the consequences?
“The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy,” Senator 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.”
Franken, in addition to being an esteemed senator and having played the character Stuart Smalley in a movie, is also chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law.
In his intense speech to the Bar Association, he said that the argument these companies sometimes make–that users can simply use other, similar services if they don’t like Google’s or Facebook’s privacy policies–seems disingenuous.
He noted how central they are to our lives and that those with privacy concerns can’t so easily abandon them for competitors’ services.
Senator Franken on Google: “If you don’t want your search results shared with other Google sites – if you don’t want some kind of super-profile 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.”
Franken on Facebook: “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.”
The senator said the new business model for companies like these–ones offering free services–is to be more accountable to advertisers than to users.
“[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.”
So when it comes to your family, there’s no point waiting for government legislation or for these companies to suddenly alter their already super-successful business models.
That’s why it’s crucial only to post what you would want others to know about you and to read and adjust your child’s privacy settings with care. No matter which online service they’re using.
Remember: You are their product.
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