Home What's Brewing? The Cantwell Crusade for Online Privacy

The Cantwell Crusade for Online Privacy

In the intricate web of American politics, the path to enacting meaningful legislation is fraught with challenges. For Senator Maria Cantwell, who has been running the gauntlet between content stakeholders and online consumers her entire career, from her role as chief marketer and privacy advocate for Seattle’s RealNetworks to her leadership position as the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee in the U.S. congress, her journey has been both mercenary and missionary.

Cantwell’s commitment to privacy and cybersecurity underscores a profound dedication to protecting Americans’ personal information in the digital age.  She urged former President Trump to veto any resolution that allowed internet companies to sell Americans’ browser history and other sensitive information. The Internet, she believes, should remain “a tool for learning,” not for governments and private companies to “invade your privacy.”

Striving for Bipartisanship

In July 2022, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) became the first federal online privacy bill to pass the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and did so with near unanimity. Sponsored by the committee chair Frank Pallone, the bicameral bill had bipartisan support and had included bipartisan concessions that had restricted prior attempts at a bipartisan privacy bill. The bill was additionally led by House Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and, in the other legislative chamber, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MISS). While Consumer Reports and the Electronic Privacy Information Center both showed optimism towards the bill, several Democratic senators opposed the bill because it could nullify stronger protection from several state laws.

As the bill advanced to the House floor, it faced opposition from California lawmakers, including the Senate Commerce Committee chair. Cantwell’s concern for ADPPA was its enforcement provisions. Her own draft bill had been grappling with a provision that would restrict consumers from creating class-action lawsuits against companies that had harmed them.

The 2022 overruling of Roe v. Wade led to increased interest in a federal privacy bill, with concern over how unmitigated tracking by data brokers and app developers, such as user visits to abortion clinics or period app usage, could be used to target users in states where abortion is criminalized. ADPPA would have protected health privacy and not directly address Roe.

National Privacy Rights from Two Washingtonians

In April of 2024, Cantwell launched  the American Privacy Rights Act (APRA) collaborating with another Washingtonian, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). APRA seeks to establish foundational uniform national data privacy rights for Americans, putting people in control of their own personal data eliminating  the patchwork of state laws by setting one national privacy standard, stronger than any state.

APRA represents a significant step toward comprehensive data privacy legislation in the U.S. and aims to hold violators accountable through robust enforcement mechanisms, including a private right of action for individuals  The legislation gives Americans control over where their personal information goes, including the ability to prevent the transfer or selling of their data.

The Fate and Timing of TikTok

Cantwell finds herself at another inflection point regarding TikTok, the popular video-sharing app, which has been besieged by allegations that its China-based parent, ByteDance, poses a national security risk.

Lawmakers worry about the implications of Americans’ data being accessed by the Chinese state, which could pose a national security risk since China’s national security law mandates companies to provide customer data if requested by Beijing.

From RealJukebox to Realpolitik

Once upon a time in Seattle, a multimedia player named RealJukebox, was unknowingly recording users’ listening habits, not unlike the streaming services of today. Indeed, Spotify tracks the listening habits of subscribers to provide a personalized listening experience. collecting data on what tracks are played, playlists created, and search queries. Spotify uses this information to categorize music, compare listening habits to other users, and suggest songs that may be liked. Apple Music’s Replay tracks listening habits to such as monthly listening time and artist preferences as fits Amazon Music’s AutoPlay,

But in 1999, the same policy in place at RealNetworks created a minor uproar, especially when the company’s CEO, Rob Glaser, was on the executive committee of  the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The decision to reverse engineer the digital jukebox and eliminate the data shadow left by users was deemed the first of its kind according to market research firm Envisioneering. 

At the time, the industry was battling a Clinton administration proposal to build surveillance capabilities, the so-called Clipper Chip, into computers, allowing the government to access personal information.The industry wanted the right to protect its own software from hackers by using encryption capabilities. Glaser found an ally in Maria Cantwell.  The freshman lawmaker scored a coup when she persuaded the Clinton administration to drop its proposals.

Taking a hiatus Cantwell’s job as vice president for marketing was to convey that excitement to a skeptical news media and potential consumers. The breakthrough came in September 1995, when RealNetworks broadcast a Mariner-Yankee baseball game live over the Internet.

In 1992, Maria became the first Democrat in 40 years to be elected to the 1st Congressional District, home to many of the region’s major high-tech firms. At the end of her first term, she joined RealNetworks in its pre-stock era and profited handsomely from its IPO.

As vice president for marketing, Cantwell was on the front lines of an emergency crisis with RealJukebox, one of RealNetworks’ most popular software programs. RealJukebox lets users download music from the Internet onto their hard drives. The program also kept track of which CDs each user listened to, the number of songs stored on a hard drive and whether the music was stored using other RealNetworks programs in aggregate.Individual identifiers were never stored or passed to other companies.

Cantwell helped write a software-privacy policy, which she says was the first of its kind. She says RealNetworks now leads the industry in privacy efforts.[24×7]

Despite TikTok’s assurances, it has faced real privacy scandals:  In December 2022, TikTok admitted that employees had spied on reporters using location data.  The company is reportedly under investigation by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission for potentially failing to adequately delete videos from users who are 13 and under, as required by law.  The IrishData Protection Commission (DPC), TikTok’s lead regulator in the EU, is investigating TikTok’s  processing of children’s personal data related issues.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would require TikTok to find a new owner within six months or face a ban in the U.S. This bill has landed on Senator Cantwell’s desk as the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee although some senators have called on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the TikTok bill straight to the Senate floor for a vote. Schumer has not commented on the idea.

Given the fact that Senator Cantwell is from Washington state, it should not be surprising that both Microsoft and Amazon have been among her political contributors over the past five years. A Washington Post report found zero evidence of potential improper influence.

Cantwell has been redefining transportation policy with investments in freight, megaprojects, and fish passage, in addition to advancing aviation safety legislation.

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

“It just takes a while for these issues on how to protect privacy ights to be specified,” Cantwell said. She called the new bill stronger and “night and day” from the House proposal in 2022. [24×7]