WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday called on two powerful Washington lawmakers to work together to limit the way “Big Tech” companies collect and use data on Americans, one of the few issues where Republicans and Democrats could make bipartisan progress in a divided government this year.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican, each lead the committees charged with regulating tech companies in their respective chambers. The two lawmakers haven’t seen eye to eye after backing competing proposals to rein in social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, President Joe Biden urged the parties to unite against companies that “collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt our economy’s playing field, violate the civil rights of women and minorities, and even put our children at risk.”
“Big Tech companies collect huge amounts of data on the things we buy, on the websites we visit, on the places we go and, most troubling of all, on our children,” Biden wrote. “We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”
McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic counterpart on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, have backed a broad package of reforms that cleared their panel on a nearly unanimous vote of 53-2 last July. Cantwell has criticized that bipartisan bill as “weak,” while backing a separate bill aimed at protecting children’s safety online, which McMorris Rodgers has argued is too narrow.
In a twist that defies typical partisan divisions and illustrates how tricky it is to put guardrails in the digital world, some civil rights groups and progressive advocacy organizations have backed the bipartisan bill, prompting Cantwell to accuse them in July of having been “infiltrated by people who are trying to push them to support a weak bill.” Meanwhile, some of those same groups have said the Cantwell-backed Kids Online Safety Act would give the government too much control over Americans’ online lives.
In a statement Thursday, Cantwell hinted at the disagreements that remain over regulations, while acknowledging the work the Federal Trade Commission and individual states have done to protect data privacy in lieu of a federal law.
“I appreciate President Biden’s continued partnership on tech regulation as well as the work the FTC and many states are already doing to protect consumers,” she said. “Congress must pass strong rules that protect kids and adults online — with strong enforcement to make sure they stick. I will continue to advocate for robust privacy rights in any nationwide standard and meaningful enforcement mechanisms, including the right for individuals to sue for substantial privacy harms.”
McMorris Rodgers welcomed Biden’s message on Wednesday while calling for social media companies to scale back moderation of speech on their platforms, an area where the parties largely disagree.
“President Biden is correct to acknowledge the risks posed by Big Tech for Americans,” she said in a statement. “Rather than trying to address these harms unilaterally through executive action and contorting authority, the administration needs to work with Congress to enact comprehensive privacy protections through one national privacy standard that protects all Americans, especially our kids.”
In Thursday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration was “heartened to see bipartisan cooperation continue” between the Washington lawmakers.
“Democrats and Republicans need to come together to pass serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy, including the strongest possible protections for minors,” Jean-Pierre said in response to a question from The Spokesman-Review. “We welcome the partnership of Sen. Cantwell, Chairwoman McMorris Rodgers, Congressman Pallone and others in getting a bipartisan product to the president’s desk that protects our privacy and also protects the privacy of our children. We think this is a critical, important issue.”
The White House spokeswoman declined to say where Biden stands on one of the main sticking points in the negotiations: to what extent a federal data privacy standard would override state laws. In addition to Cantwell, a handful of California Democrats have criticized the House bill because it would preempt a tougher law their state’s voters approved in 2020.
In the absence of congressional action to hold tech companies accountable for their impact on users, some privacy advocates have turned to the courts. On Jan. 6, Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against the companies behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat for targeting their products to children and doing harm.
With divided government after the GOP took control of the House in the 2022 elections, regulating tech companies may be one of the rare projects both Democrats and Republicans can get behind.
“We look forward to working with both parties and both houses to get privacy and other tech legislation done,” Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “The protection of privacy is important for Americans across the country, but also let’s not forget our children.”