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April 23, 2013
Dan Morain: Will Kamala Harris be watchdog of Internet giants?

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(April 23) Attorney General Kamala Harris has a Google issue.

It's not that her reputation is being besmirched online. If anything, she is trending up. If you Google her, you'll see that Time magazine last week named her on its list of the world's most influential people, directly behind NRA chief Wayne LaPierre.

You'll also see that her pal, President Barack Obama, caused a kerfuffle at an Atherton fundraiser earlier this month by calling her the country's best-looking attorney general, a comment that drove so much traffic to the California Department of Justice website that it all but crashed.

Her Google issue is this: The attorney general has made Internet privacy a core part of her platform. But she has not weighed in on some of the fundamental privacy issues raised by the actions of Google and other iconic Silicon Valley companies.

"Her lack of response is extremely disappointing, given that she takes the position that she is in favor of consumer privacy," said Silicon Valley antitrust attorney Gary Reback, who is tangling on behalf of various small companies with Google over its market dominance.

Harris' aides say she is in part hamstrung by California state law. The current online privacy law took effect in 2004, before smartphones and mobile apps were invented. But that law could change, particularly if Harris engages more directly in the legislative process.

Much to Silicon Valley's alarm, legislators are pushing numerous Internet privacy bills this year. So far, Harris is backing one of them, Assembly Bill 370 by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Torrance Democrat who is a former deputy attorney general, to restrict online tracking of people who surf from site to site.

She has taken no stand on perhaps the most sweeping measure, AB 1291 by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat. Backed by the ACLU and major consumer advocates, AB 1291 would require that once a year, businesses at customers' request would need to provide details about any personal information they store or disclose to third parties.

On behalf of heavyweights such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, trade groups have sent letters denouncing the bill, warning that it "rests on mistaken assumptions about how the Internet works, and would impose costly and unrealistic mandates on California's technology." The bill faces an uncertain fate at its first hearing next month.

Harris also is in the middle of a fight among tech goliaths. As it promotes its Bing search engine, Microsoft has been pummeling Google in an ad campaign called "Scroogled.com," accusing Google of sharing customers' information with third-party developers of applications that run on Google products.

The Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, working with attorney Reback, complained in February to the Federal Trade Commission about the practice and sent a copy of its complaint to Harris.

Google is nothing if not nimble. On Tuesday, the online publication Droid Life reported that Google is revising its policy and apparently would stop sharing names, emails and locations where customers live with app developers. Google didn't dispute the report.

"If the New York attorney general should be the top cop on Wall Street, the California attorney general should be top cop in the Silicon Valley," Consumer Watchdog head Jamie Court said. "We're waiting."

Like any politician on the rise, Harris must make calculations. Privacy is a big issue for voters, especially in California where the right to privacy is embedded in the constitution.

But Google is a particularly influential political player. Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman, has been a top Obama campaign adviser and fundraiser. Google and its employees have donated $3.2 million to California campaigns, including $21,000 to Harris.

Insisting Harris is not taking a walk, her spokesman Gil Duran said: "The attorney general is protecting the privacy of Californians by strongly enforcing existing privacy laws, supporting legislative efforts to pass new privacy laws and working with tech innovators to ensure their privacy practices are transparent."

Harris' aides point out that she was part of a group of attorneys generals who settled a case against Google, which generated $50 billion in revenue last year, for $7 million, including $303,000 for California. She also has secured agreements for clearer privacy statements.

In her two years in office, Harris has picked her issues, confronting banks over the foreclosure crisis and standing up for strong gun control, hardly controversial among most California voters. It's harder to confront an iconic Silicon Valley company, one that can punch back.

As California's top attorney, she is obligated to prosecute civil and criminal violations. As a politician widely mentioned as a candidate for governor or U.S. Senate, or as a top Obama appointee, she can't help but consider her next step.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.

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