Google scrutiny to come to Washington with Blumenthal

After relentlessly investigating Google as attorney general, Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) plans to "actively" keep the heat on when he begins his term in Washington next year, he said Thursday in an interview with The Hill.

"I will focus on Google and the privacy issues raised by the Street View program," he said, referring to a privacy breach in which Google collected and stored private user e-mails and passwords from Wi-Fi networks.

Blumenthal led a coalition of state governments this year in probing the issue. Now he wants Google's breach to get congressional scrutiny, too.

Senate hearings might be necessary to gather more information about the breach, according to Blumenthal. He said he is willing to work across chamber and party lines to make sure the issue is addressed and would be happy to partner with Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and other Republicans on the question. Barton has said he might call for hearings.

"This issue ought to be completely nonpartisan," Blumenthal said. "There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican Internet security solution. That idea is outlandish."

Various Internet companies might be sweating as Blumenthal prepares to assume a Senate seat. A telecom trade paper epitomized what this means to the Internet landscape with a headline after the election: "Google, Craigslist nemesis wins Senate seat."

Blumenthal has relentlessly pursued both companies for what he saw as failure to protect users' privacy and safety. His crackdowns have often produced concessions.

For instance, Blumenthal led a coalition of attorneys general who pushed Craigslist this year to remove its "adult services" section. The coalition argued this section abets child prostitution. Craigslist dragged its feet but finally shut off the link.

Blumenthal also goaded MySpace into turning over the names of sex offenders who use its site.

He does not plan to let up.

"My interest in Internet privacy and safety issues will be a personal priority," Blumenthal said. "I intend to be very active and hopefully effective in many of the areas that have motivated me as attorney general."

It is time for Congress to crack down on some of the privacy and liability issues that websites sometimes skirt, according to Blumenthal.

"There is a huge set of tremendously important issues that federal law fails to address as effectively as it should," he said.

Blumenthal's critics say his enforcement-minded approach is outdated for the Internet age. It could do more harm than good to create rules for websites that users can post to themselves, such as Craigslist, they say. This approach might help rout out the free-wielding nature of these websites, but it could also diminish the unfiltered quality that makes them so successful, the counter-argument goes.

Blumenthal's attention to the Google issue, meanwhile, sees culpability in what the company claims is just a software error. Google has apologized for the breach, saying an engineer included code that should not have there. 

In response to a question about Blumenthal's plans to keep pursuing Google's Street View privacy breach, a spokesperson said the company will "work with the authorities to determine the best way forward, as well as to answer their further questions and concerns."

Blumenthal's approach has sympathizers in both parties. Analysts agree that online privacy is one of the few issues that may sow bipartisanship on the congressional commerce panels in the next Congress.