Powerful senator crafts TikTok crackdown

Sen. Maria Cantwell is known for deliberate, time-consuming work. PHOTO: MARIAM ZUHAIB/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Maria Cantwell is known for deliberate, time-consuming work. PHOTO: MARIAM ZUHAIB/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell has deep experience with tech legislation, while frustrating some colleagues.

WASHINGTON—Sen. Maria Cantwell said she wants to end China’s control of TikTok. She also wants such legislation to hold up in court. But what that bill looks like, and how quickly it could get to President Biden’s desk, remain in play, the powerful Democrat said in an interview.

The House overwhelmingly passed a measure last month that would force the short-video app to find a new owner that isn’t a foreign adversary within six months or be banned in the U.S. That put the bill in the lap of Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, who has a deep experience with technology issues but has also sparked frustration among colleagues for how she handled past efforts regarding user privacy and social media.

Now, TikTok’s allies and critics alike see Cantwell as critical to the app’s fate. The 65-year-old, four-term senator from Washington state is known for deliberate, time-consuming work, and she and other leaders have kept their plans close to the vest. Cantwell faces pressure to move relatively quickly on any changes to the bill, amid worries that the legislation that sailed through the House could get bogged down in the Senate.

In an interview in her Senate office, Cantwell laid out the questions facing her. “Do we want a tool by which the United States can stop bad actors from broadcasting, if you will, into the United States with nefarious messages? And the answer is yes, we want that tool to exist," she said. “And so now the question is: Is the House tool good enough, or do we need to make some changes to it?"

Asked on timing for a vote, Cantwell said she wanted to see it “sooner as opposed to later, because I don’t think it’s going to go away." The bill must get to Biden’s desk this year, or it will expire, but proponents want quicker action. “There’s some avenues by which we could get this done in a short period of time," Cantwell said.

TikTok has said it considers the House bill as tantamount to a ban, as Chinese-controlled parent Bytedance has said it won’t sell and the Chinese government has signaled it wouldn’t allow a sale. TikTok also says it has never been asked to provide U.S. user data to the Chinese government and wouldn’t if asked, and has also said it doesn’t tailor content based on political motives.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has backed the House bill, as have prominent Democrats such as Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D., Va.). But other lawmakers have been more cautious. Cantwell said senators have been examining the text of the House measure to determine whether it is constitutional and can withstand expected court challenges.

The committee where ‘stuff goes to die’?

Some critics of TikTok expressed concerns about Cantwell’s panel and worries that prolonged Senate rumination could sink the bill.

“Historically, the Commerce Committee is where this stuff goes to die," said Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), who has called for a TikTok ban.

“I’m frustrated with the committee, in that we don’t seem to be getting these huge issues resolved," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.), who serves on the committee. “There’s a lot on the plate that doesn’t get moved," she said, citing efforts on data privacy and TikTok.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) expressed confidence in Cantwell, whom he said he plans to meet with this week to discuss the bill.

“I have a great deal of faith, because she’s had such a great record in the past," Schumer said, citing her key role in the Chips act, the 2022 law intended to revitalize the U.S. semiconductor industry.

Schumer hasn’t said when he wants to bring TikTok legislation to the floor. One approach could be attaching a TikTok bill to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, which faces a May 10 deadline. Such must-pass bills often become vehicles for other legislation to move forward.

A senior Democratic aide said that the Senate was looking at the House bill as a base for its bill, rather than reviving previous TikTok-related measures that had been introduced in the Senate. The same aide said that mentioning TikTok by name in the bill—which raised legal questions—would likely survive court challenges, as it served a “forward looking purpose" designed to stop potential spying on Americans.

More time for TikTok to find a buyer

One element of the House bill that Cantwell is open to changing is the six-month period for TikTok to divest to avoid a shutdown. Critics of the House bill, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) have said such a short timeline would create a fire sale, unfairly hurting investors. Some U.S. figures including former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have expressed interest in forming an investor group.

Lengthening the time could “give you the ability to actually do a transaction and maybe have a little bit more, not stability, but find the right divestiture," Cantwell said.

She said she didn’t believe the House TikTok bill violates First Amendment speech protections, another concern some lawmakers have raised.

Cantwell sees the TikTok legislation as one of several tech-focused bills that could advance this year. Earlier this month, she released a draft of a comprehensive data-privacy bill with Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is also from Washington state.

Efforts to pass such legislation have failed for years, including in 2022 when Rodgers had a bipartisan bill that passed her committee and had support from Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, but faced opposition from Cantwell over how victims could pursue legal action. Democratic lawmakers and aides pointed to Cantwell as a reason why they didn’t get close to a vote. She said legislating takes time and points to the new privacy bill, which she hopes to introduce next week.

“She both supports tech but also wants to rein tech in," said David Vladeck, a former director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission, who has advised Cantwell. “She’s been at odds with some of the platforms, including some in her own state."

Many of Cantwell’s top donors are individuals at tech companies with headquarters or facilities in Washington, including T-Mobile, Microsoft and Amazon, according to OpenSecrets. She doesn’t take corporate PAC money.

Early fights on tech privacy

Cantwell has a long history in politics and technology. She grew up in Indianapolis and moved to Seattle to work on Democrat Alan Cranston’s 1984 presidential campaign. He lost, but she stayed.

She was elected to the state legislature and then won a U.S. House seat in 1992. There, she encountered her first big fight: successfully working to ban the so-called Clipper Chip, a Clinton administration plan to build surveillance capabilities into personal computers. After a Republican wave in Washington in 1994 sent her home, she went into the private sector, working as vice president of marketing for RealNetworks, a pioneer in online audio and video services.

Cantwell helped RealNetworks manage one of the first tech privacy crises in the late 90s—when it was discovered that the company could access users’ personal information and what they were listening to. In 2000, she was recruited to run for Senate and spent more than $1 million of her own money on the primary campaign, in which data privacy played a central role.

In her office, which features photos of her home state, she also keeps a picture of her with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. The liberal Democrat, who played a central role in legislation including the Americans With Disabilities Act, took her under his wing. He would invite her to his office where he would bring in experts to talk about policy.

“When I get frustrated, I look at that picture," she said, holding it up. “It reminds me, yes, legislating is hard, it takes time, you have to keep at it."

Write to Natalie Andrews at natalie.andrews@wsj.com

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