In first term, Franken makes technology his niche

Published 10:01 am Monday, October 6, 2014

WASHINGTON — Patting his notes for emphasis, Sen. Al Franken made an impassioned case: The Internet needs to be free for all, he said, not customized so that big corporations can optimize it.

“We’re talking about whether the Internet should remain an open platform where everyone can participate equally,” Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said during a Senate hearing last month. “Or whether we hand the Internet over to those who can pay the most for it.”

Franken arrived in Washington known better for his past as a comedian and “Saturday Night Live” performer than for his politics. The senator who’s emerged is something else altogether: a techie.

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Franken has steeped himself in debates like net neutrality, the idea that Internet service providers should treat all Internet traffic equally rather than moving some content faster than others. He has also led Senate hearings on so-called stalker apps, questioned big technology companies like Google, Apple and Samsung on their use of fingerprint and facial recognition technologies, and loudly criticized big mergers like ones that would link Time Warner Cable and Comcast, and AT&T and DirectTV.

In doing so, he’s answered one of the main questions that greeted him when he became a senator: What policy areas would he dig in on?

“We now have this incredible acceleration of information technology and there are privacy issues that are both sort of constitutional issues, but also commercial issues,” Franken said in an interview with The Associated Press. “All of this stuff is happening and it’s moving faster and faster.”

Franken, who faces Republican Mike McFadden in his bid for a second term, said his focus comes naturally as an outgrowth of his own interests and his Senate assignments. He leads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on privacy, technology and the law. It is a perch that’s allowed Franken to explore several technology and policy debates and serve, he said, as a sort of alert system for consumers and law enforcement agencies.

That was the case earlier this year, when Franken held a hearing on so-called stalking apps, which allow someone to surreptitiously install programs that track locations and other information on someone else’s phone. Franken would like Congress to ban such apps. For now, he said he’s gratified that many law enforcement agencies started to take them more seriously after he led a committee hearing on them earlier this year.

“I think we’re going to get a strong bill on this,” Franken said. “I think part of what we do in the committee is bring awareness of what exactly is out there. When you have cookies on your laptop what does that mean and make people aware of what there is and isn’t.”

Franken is equally concerned, he said, with the growth of facial recognition software that has moved faster than law enforcement and privacy advocates can keep up with. He called some of the developments, which could allow someone to use a product like Google Glass to identify strangers on the street, “creepy, very creepy.” He said he would work on legislation that regulates them more closely.

Franken often frames his work on technology issues in a populist way. He has argued that companies like Apple and Samsung, who have adopted fingerprint technology for their phones, need to do more to ensure customers’ privacy and are aware of the risks in such technology. And he has been a staunch opponent of media mergers, which he says will inevitably result in higher costs for average consumers.

Technology policy has not been a big factor in Franken’s campaign against McFadden. McFadden has attacked Franken as a partisan, calling him a “professional” politician more interested in helping an unpopular President Barack Obama than anything else.

During a debate this week, McFadden said that the “biggest single issue in this country is we’ve created a professional class of politician and it is killing us. And I believe after six years that Senator Franken has become part of that professional class.”

Franken said his work on technology and privacy issues discredits McFadden’s argument.

“I think this is very much about big guy vs. little guy,” Franken said. “And that’s sort of a common theme in this Senate race.”

If he’s re-elected, Franken said he expects to continue to focus on technology issues. The industry’s rapid growth — and the security, privacy and consumer concerns that come with it — will keep him busy.

“There’s a whole span of issues,” Franken said. “We’ve just had another data breach … we want to establish a national standard for data breach notification, enhance tools for fighting cyber criminals.”