Maria Cantwell wants a privacy legislation. She’s been one of its biggest obstacles.


When Maria Cantwell first ran for the U.S. Senate, she championed what was then an unconventional political trigger: web privacy.

“What you do on your computer should be your business, and no one else’s,” Cantwell, the dot-com millionaire and former U.S. House member, mentioned in a 2000 marketing campaign video that confirmed her huddled round a clunky white desktop monitor with a group of schoolchildren. The web, she mentioned, ought to stay “a tool for learning,” not for governments and personal corporations to “invade your privacy.”

Twenty-four years later, Cantwell (D-Wash.) has lastly unveiled a bipartisan settlement geared toward reaching that imaginative and prescient. But the trail forward stays murky. As the Senate Commerce Committee chair, Cantwell has uncommon energy to manage the tech business’s abuses, however her panel’s observe file is sparse: Of dozens of payments launched to handle privacy, content material moderation, even synthetic intelligence, few have superior.

“That’s where a lot of the tech legislation goes to die is that committee,” mentioned one House aide. “It’s a graveyard over there.”

Cantwell herself is a main motive for the deadlock, in accordance with greater than a dozen present and former congressional aides in each events, and others conversant in the committee’s dynamics, all of whom spoke on the situation of anonymity to talk candidly concerning the highly effective senator. Some mentioned they feared retaliation.

Cantwell has repeatedly upended privacy negotiations. In 2019, she broke up a working group making an attempt to hash out a compromise. In 2022, she rebuffed a landmark settlement from three key lawmakers, a first-of-its sort bipartisan deal. Again and once more, aides mentioned, she has thwarted promising talks by refusing to iron out key disputes, talking out publicly towards colleagues’ efforts and never empowering her employees to completely negotiate.

Cantwell spokeswoman Ansley Lacitis mentioned in a assertion Friday that prior privacy negotiations “fell through when they couldn’t agree on strong day-one enforcement mechanisms” and different sticking factors. Cantwell “appreciates strong staff leadership and has been impressed by staff on negotiating major policy settlement” on points comparable to equal pay, prescription drug pricing and client fraud, Lacitis mentioned.

Some former Senate aides, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to candidly talk about dynamics, pushed again on the characterizations on this report. Two described the senator as hard-working. “She’s not a show horse. She gets things done,” mentioned one aide who labored for Cantwell. Another former Cantwell aide mentioned that whereas it’s “definitely a member-driven office,” the senator is “dogged” and “deliberative.”

On Sunday, Cantwell heralded a breakthrough privacy measure with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), marking the primary time the leaders of the 2 important committees had agreed on a plan to determine a federal baseline for what knowledge corporations can gather on-line and to provide shoppers new privacy rights. Lawmakers, privacy advocates and business leaders praised the deal, one of essentially the most sought-after items of web coverage in Washington.

But at the least 5 aides mentioned it was the sort of settlement that would have been struck years in the past. And there’s nonetheless skepticism about Cantwell’s potential to shut out the method. “Expectations are low,” mentioned one Senate aide.

Cantwell launched her first senatorial bid shortly after serving to the streaming software program firm RealNetworks climate a main privacy scandal.

Advocates revealed the tech agency’s music participant may secretly gather knowledge on customers’ listening habits. Cantwell, RealNetworks’ former advertising chief, has mentioned the incident influenced her fascinated by the necessity for privacy protections.

On her marketing campaign web site, privacy obtained near-top billing. “The government has an obligation to set the ethical and legal standards for the management of personal data, and to enforce those standards,” she wrote on the time.

But her position swelled a lot later, in 2019, when Cantwell grew to become the senior Democrat on Senate Commerce. Her ascension got here as fury with Silicon Valley — partly fueled by the 2018 Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal — was beginning to generate legislative exercise.

The European Union had carried out its personal sprawling privacy protections, referred to as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, as had California, and U.S. lawmakers pushed to comply with swimsuit.

A bipartisan working group led by then-Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was making regular headway towards a nationwide invoice to guard shoppers’ private info. When Cantwell and then-Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) joined the group, the growth was touted as a signal of rising momentum.

But Cantwell undermined the negotiations, in accordance with 5 present and former Senate aides, publicly questioning whether or not different group members had been dedicated to producing a “strong bill” and remaining “noncommittal” and “sullen” in non-public conferences with the members.

The discussions took a sharp flip a couple of months after the growth, when Cantwell pushed to slender the negotiating pool to simply herself and Wicker.

“Nothing really happened after that,” mentioned one aide. Cantwell and Wicker rolled out separate privacy proposals later that yr.

The two sides remained aside on key sticking factors — whether or not a federal legislation ought to override state privacy measures, as Republicans wished, and whether or not shoppers ought to be capable of sue corporations instantly, as Democrats desired. The disputes have lengthy befuddled negotiators.

But many aides mentioned the episode was half of a sample: Cantwell would publicly criticize different members’ tech initiatives, take umbrage at lawmakers main them in her stead, after which both let the push fizzle or quash it behind closed doorways.

“Legislation would be worked on for months, hours and hours and hours of staff time would be invested, member conversations would be had, and then all of the sudden things would go in a completely different direction,” mentioned a former Senate aide.

It’s a development a number of aides mentioned they worry can be repeated in different negotiations, together with over the destiny of a not too long ago handed House invoice focusing on TikTok, the favored video-sharing app, which has been besieged by allegations that its China-based mum or dad, ByteDance, poses a nationwide safety threat.

Cantwell has mentioned the Senate ought to take into account the difficulty and had been drafting an alternate proposal to handle the issues round TikTok. But final month, she poured chilly water on the House invoice, telling Politico, “That one, I don’t think will make it all the way through.”

Cantwell and the opposite leaders of the Commerce and Intelligence committees have agreed to amend the House laws, however staffers have had problem pinning down what updates she is in search of, in accordance with a particular person with information of the talks. When requested about it, Cantwell’s workplace referred to a Politico article printed Thursday during which an unnamed Commerce aide mentioned the senator is in talks with different lawmakers about adjustments to the invoice.

Some senators have known as on Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bypass Commerce — and Cantwell — by bringing the TikTok invoice straight to the Senate ground for a vote. Schumer has not commented on the thought.

Some lawmakers and advocacy teams have argued that Congress wouldn’t want to fret a lot about TikTok if it simply handed a broader privacy legislation. But for years, many payments geared toward grappling with the highly effective tech sector have hinged on the House and Senate commerce panels, the place relationships have soured.

In 2022, Cantwell was notably absent from a deal struck by three of the 4 leaders of the committees on a landmark draft privacy proposal. Cantwell publicly torched the invoice a few weeks later, arguing it had “major enforcement holes” and urging different lawmakers to “come back to the table on something strong.”

But weeks prior, Cantwell privately accused the group of reducing her out of the discussions after which walked away from the negotiating desk, in accordance with greater than a half-dozen present and former Senate and House aides. Afterward, Cantwell’s workplace combatively declined to interact with lawmakers on their laws, a number of aides mentioned.

Cantwell rebuked a provision within the invoice delaying when shoppers may convey lawsuits towards corporations and known as for protections towards pressured arbitration, a problem she additionally raised in 2019.

“She wanted to do her own thing and couldn’t be swayed to work collaboratively,” mentioned a former House aide. Another aide mentioned the dynamics created vital “bad blood” between Cantwell and her counterparts.

On Sunday, Cantwell mentioned the “four corners” group’s effort “didn’t go where it needed to.” Lacitis, her spokeswoman, mentioned that on the time, Cantwell was additionally serving to lead efforts to cross “one of the most consequential pieces of legislation to reinvigorate American manufacturing” within the semiconductor business.

A spokesman for Wicker declined to remark. In a assertion, high House Energy and Commerce Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) mentioned: “Senator Cantwell and I have both passed legislation out of our committees that would finally begin to hold Big Tech accountable, but getting them across the finish line is challenging. I’m optimistic that we’ll make meaningful progress together in the months ahead.”

On Wednesday, McMorris Rodgers mentioned she was “encouraged” she and Cantwell had been in a position to “hammer out language to address the sticking points and reach an agreement” on a new invoice.

The Washington Post first contacted Cantwell’s workplace for an interview final month earlier than lawmakers went on a two-week recess, throughout which The Post contacted dozens of present and former aides. Plans for an interview had been delayed till Sunday. Two days earlier than then, on April 5, Punchbowl News was the primary to report on Cantwell’s privacy deal.

On Sunday, Cantwell advised The Post that McMorris Rodgers, one other influential member of Washington state’s congressional delegation, approached her in December with an thought for breaking the logjam on privacy: “Maybe a Northwest perspective could work here.”

Cantwell’s opposition was not the one hurdle for the 2022 privacy invoice. Other Senate Democrats, together with Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), expressed concern that its enforcement and protections had been missing. Months later, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the invoice for overriding protections in California.

The House invoice was by no means dropped at the ground.

Multiple aides mentioned Cantwell has typically not given her employees sufficient license to talk on her behalf, inflicting delays that threaten already tenuous momentum. “The staff aren’t empowered enough to feel like they can be in a room and cut the deals that need to be cut,” mentioned a former House aide.

Turnover has additionally been a problem, aides mentioned.

Cantwell was tied for the second-highest employees turnover price of any present senator between 2001 and 2022, behind solely Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), in accordance with knowledge compiled by LegiStorm, a analysis group that tracks personnel adjustments on Capitol Hill. In 2019 and 2022, two key negotiating years on privacy, Cantwell ranked third and thirty sixth, respectively.

Cantwell has misplaced a number of high committee aides in recent times, some of whom decamped for jobs at main tech corporations together with Meta. Other Cantwell staffers have lobbied or consulted for TikTok.

Cantwell, who has served as Washington’s junior senator since 2001, has long-standing ties to tech leaders in and out of doors of Washington past her time at RealNetworks.

Staffers from Microsoft and Amazon — each headquartered in her state — have been amongst Cantwell’s biggest political contributors over the previous 5 years, in accordance with OpenSecrets, a corporation that tracks marketing campaign donations.

Her previous tech and telecom donors have included Amazon Web Services CEO Adam Selipsky, Microsoft President Brad Smith, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, in accordance with a assessment of federal marketing campaign disclosure kinds.

None of the aides interviewed for this report offered any proof of potential improper affect, as a substitute largely attributing her disputes with different members on tech to a combine of persona clashes, political squabbling and coverage variations.

In current years, Senate Commerce has twice superior a invoice to develop federal privacy legal guidelines for youngsters and one other sweeping measure led by Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) to drive tech corporations to take higher steps to guard kids from hurt. Both lawmakers expressed gratitude for Cantwell’s help in written statements.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the 2019 privacy working group, mentioned Cantwell has “been helpful in including me in meetings and conversations.” He added: “Everything takes a while around here.”

Schumer known as Cantwell “one of the most productive and effective members” of the chamber and mentioned she is “working doggedly to achieve bipartisan results” on Commerce.

But some aides mentioned her dizzying strategy to negotiations isn’t distinct to tech: The similar dynamics which have rankled staffers have reared in different areas comparable to telecom and transportation coverage.

Cantwell “has been redefining transportation policy with investments in freight, megaprojects, and fish passage,” along with advancing aviation security laws, Lacitis mentioned.

Several Senate aides criticized her for not holding extra hearings on tech points this Congress. Senate Commerce has held hearings on web entry, robocalls and synthetic intelligence. But it’s been over two years because it’s held a session centered on privacy or social media regulation, main points it has main jurisdiction over. Other panels, together with Senate Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce, have been way more energetic.

Cantwell’s landmark settlement with McMorris Rodgers on a draft proposal, nevertheless, has renewed hope a long-sought federal privacy legislation may as soon as once more be inside attain. Cantwell mentioned that getting House GOP leaders to log off on language barring pressured arbitration and eradicating the delay on when shoppers can convey lawsuits was key to reaching a compromise.

“It just takes a while for these issues on how to protect those rights to be specified,” Cantwell mentioned. She known as the brand new invoice stronger and “night and day” from the House proposal in 2022.

Asked what it might imply to her personally to lastly cross federal privacy requirements after years of unsuccessful makes an attempt, Cantwell demurred: “It’s hard to comprehend. It’s kind of hard to comprehend … so it’ll just leave it at that.”

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