Fighting online crime with a parent's drive

Jennifer Granholm is a concerned mother.

Like most parents, she worries about what her children might stumble across when they go online to research a school paper or simply send an e-mail to a friend.

But unlike the typical suburban mom who wants to make the Net safe for her kids, Ms. Granholm comes equipped to fight Internet bad guys with a few weapons.

After all, she's Michigan's attorney general. In other words, she's a concerned mom with subpoena power.

"No doubt about it, a lot of the stuff I take on as attorney general is stuff I see that's wrong as a parent," says Granholm, the daughter of a sawmill worker and the first in her family to attend college.

So far, that's meant a heavy focus on the Internet - making Michigan perhaps the most aggressive state in pursuing and prosecuting online crime.

In her first year, she's created a task force, taken unprecedented steps to protect Web surfers' privacy, and even tangled with Microsoft over its infamous browser.

It's enough to have some pundits pointing to a bid for governor in 2002. But for now, she's concentrating on taking down those who market alcohol, tobacco, and porn to minors on the Web - while making sure she's always home for the family dinner at 6 p.m. sharp.

"Granholm has definitely taken a leadership role on Internet-crime issues," says David Lauren, spokesman for the National Association of Attorneys General.

For 37 years, her legendary predecessor, Frank Kelley, made a name for himself by attacking utilities. Currently in her first term, Granholm has applied the same spirit to the high-tech realm. Her signature achievement has been Michigan's High Tech Crime Unit.

Since she began it in May 1999, the force has helped convict a dealer of date-rape drugs, nabbed a couple of individuals who sold liquor and cigarettes online to minors, and played a key role in tracking down a child predator from Florida who sent incriminating e-mails to a 14-year-old Michigan girl.

Wired for efficiency

Granholm, who has been an avid online shopper and bill-payer for five years, sees the positive side to the Internet as well. "I love being able to leverage technology to be more efficient," she says.

Indeed, her state car is equipped with a laptop computer, two cellphones, and a Dictaphone - all so she can conduct business during her 160-mile daily commute.

She takes her in-box home at the end of each work day and insists on being at the dinner table at 6 p.m. for the family meal with her husband and three young children.

"That three-hour period, 6 to 9 o'clock every night, is untouchable," she says.

Family always has been central to Granholm's life. She grew up in Canada and California, the daughter of a sawmill worker who worked hard to become a banking consultant. Her parents sent her to the University of California at Berkeley, and then to Harvard Law School, where she edited the law review.

In her office, baseball caps with the letters ATF and FBI sit on a windowsill, reminders of a past career as a federal prosecutor. She won her spot as attorney general on her first try at elected office.

'Big Browser' crusade

Besides cracking down on high-tech crime, Granholm has also hit the issue of online privacy. Last summer, she picked a first-of-its-kind fight against companies that allow third-party marketers to spy on Internet users via "cookies" - software that tracks a person's Web activities to develop customer profiles.

Calling it the "Big Browser" crusade, she threatened to sue Net companies to force them to talk about reworking their cookie-disclosure and privacy-protection policies.

"It's a creative and innovative way to attack a very serious problem in this country," says Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor.

So far, Granholm hasn't bagged any violators or even filed any lawsuits. But she reports that most of the companies contacted have made consumer-friendly revisions to their disclosure policies.

"The aim was not to punish companies, but to protect consumers," Granholm says.

One of the companies she spoke with was Microsoft. Along with other state attorneys general, she persuaded the Seattle software giant to offer a version of Internet Explorer that allows consumers to shut out cookies.

"Attorney General Granholm took a lead in working with us to make sure consumers were well informed and protected," says Rick Miller, a spokesman for Microsoft.

Granholm, a Democrat, has generally received praise from both sides of the political aisle. But she has also drawn criticism for occasionally hogging the spotlight and using her office to push her own agenda. "It's difficult when you have someone preparing to run for higher office sometimes going off in their own direction," says John Truscott, spokesman for Republican Gov. John Engler.

Granholm takes the criticism in stride. She hasn't said what she'll do in 2002. For the time being, she's focusing on the job at hand - and that means a cleaner, safer Internet.

"The Internet is a marvelous medium, but as more people use it, the more potential there is for crime," she says. "I want the Internet to be a safe place for children, and a safe place to transact business."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.