clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sen. Al Franken torched Amazon, Facebook and Google for using their algorithms to maintain their massive footprints

His wide-ranging speech Wednesday questioned their power over publishers and others.

Sen. Al Franken holds out his hands while questioning tech executives at a congressional hearing.
Sen. Al Franken
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Democratic Sen. Al Franken delivered a verbal lashing to Amazon, Facebook and Google on Wednesday, slamming the three tech giants for secret algorithms that often double as “sophisticated, strategic tool[s] to maintain and strengthen their own power.”

In a speech in Washington, D.C., Franken said these and other tech players in the U.S. economy have the ability to “decide for us what we should read, watch, buy or even how we should engage in civil society, and they’re doing it all under the shadow of complicated algorithms.”

In one example, Franken charged that Facebook and Google have posed new threats to publishers by siphoning advertising dollars in a way that gives them “tremendous power” over journalists and authors. In another, the Democratic lawmaker highlighted how Amazon’s gargantuan footprint had allowed it to extract favorable terms from publishers — and potentially other markets, too.

To that end, Franken said he hoped that recent developments — including reports that Russia spread disinformation on social media during the 2016 presidential election —would prompt regulators to take a closer look at the tech industry.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure that these corporations do not endanger our national security, our democracy or our fundamental freedoms,” he said.

Franken delivered the speech Wednesday at an event hosted by the Open Markets Institute, a new nonprofit focused on competition. The organization recently spun away from New America, another think tank, alleging that its critical work on Google had been muffled because the search giant is one of its former parent’s top donors. New America has denied those charges.

The event came days after tech giants submitted to a full grilling by the U.S. Congress over Russia’s election meddling. Franken also participated in one of those three hearings. And he repeatedly pressed attendees — top lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter — as to why they had not done more, and sooner, to police their platforms for abuse.

Speaking again Wednesday, Franken fretted once more that the hearings “demonstrated that these companies may not be up to the challenge that they’ve created for themselves.”

Then, the Democratic lawmaker sought to make a case for greater regulation of some of the industry’s most powerful players.

With Facebook, for example, Franken said the company had wrongly blamed its algorithms — a “convenient excuse,” in his eyes — for harmful content on its platform, including advertising categories that targeted users based on race. ProPublica previously reported that potential advertisers could target users with terms like “Jew hater.”

And Franken similarly criticized Facebook for “failing to catch a hostile foreign power using its platform to spread lies and sow discord.” It was a reference to the fact that Kremlin-tied trolls purchased 3,000 ads and shared thousands of conspiracy-tinged posts on the site during the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, Franken took aim at Google for allowing “illegal activity” to flourish in search results. “Google has previously said that its algorithms necessarily include websites dedicated to illegal activity in search results, such as pirate sites, even as in other instances it maintains that its results do reflect Google’s judgment,” he said.

And turning his attention to Amazon, Franken said the e-commerce giant had used its “unprecedented” size to extract favorable terms from book publishers. In doing so, the senator said it is a “perfect illustration of how an entity can use anticompetitive tactics to not only capture a market, but also maintain it, and ultimately use its platform to enter and dominate entirely new markets.”

This article originally appeared on