The RESTRICT Act is a bipartisan bill that seeks to give the president and commerce secretary the power to ban apps and technology products from countries deemed a threat to the United States. However, this bill has faced opposition from digital rights activists, who believe it is too broad and could be used to criminalize the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and enable additional surveillance of American citizens’ online activities. Although the bill does not specifically target TikTok or ByteDance, there are concerns that it could lead to punishment of individual Americans for accessing TikTok through VPNs or other technologies. Senators Mark Warner and John Thune argue that a comprehensive approach is necessary to proactively tackle potentially dangerous technology before it becomes entrenched in the US. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has called for Congress to prioritize comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation that protects user data across all platforms. The EFF warns that the RESTRICT Act could grant the government overly broad investigative powers, including the ability to demand information from any party involved in a transaction or investigation.
TikTok has become a social media phenomenon, attracting users with its entertaining and engaging short videos. With almost half of the US population, or 150 million Americans, using the app every month, it has become the most popular app in the country. TikTok offers a limitless scrolling experience filled with a variety of content, including humor, music, dancing, tips, information, and opinions. The app’s algorithm delivers content tailored to each user’s interests, ensuring a personalized experience. In addition to being a popular platform for users, TikTok is also a valuable marketing tool for about 5 million businesses.
Why ban TikTok?
Although TikTok has a large following among Americans, Congress has proposed multiple bills that could result in the app being banned. Congress has raised several concerns about TikTok, primarily relating to data collection, addiction among children, and the presence of misinformation and violence. These concerns are shared by other social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. However, the key difference with TikTok is that its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China and must cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party. Congress is particularly concerned that the Chinese government could use TikTok’s algorithms to control the stories Americans see, potentially influencing future elections. Professor Milton Mueller, an expert in cyber security and public policy, has studied the theory that TikTok’s algorithms may attempt to influence users’ ideology. While the app does provide information about the repression of the Uyghur minority and satirical content about Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Congress remains concerned about the potential for foreign interference in American democracy.
TikTok’s privacy statement reveals that the app collects an extensive range of data points, including your phone model, internet address, and time zone. Unlike some other social media platforms, TikTok does not collect your name or GPS location, but it does have access to your general area. The proposed Anti-Social CCP Act, introduced by Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi, aims to address this issue by either banning the app entirely or facilitating a sale to an American company. However, the value of the app makes a sale unlikely, and a ban may face constitutional challenges as it would restrict access to information. In addition to silencing the Chinese government, a ban would infringe on the free speech rights of TikTok’s 150 million American users.
The third option
Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, proposed a third option during his testimony – the “Texas Project”. This plan would involve relocating TikTok’s entire operation to the United States, with Oracle serving as the overseer of all data and algorithms. The data would be stored on American soil and subject to American laws, eliminating concerns about the Chinese government accessing user data. However, some believe that the push to attack TikTok is merely a symbolic move by politicians to appear tough on China. Mueller argues that TikTok represents a harmless form of interaction between the digital economies of the United States and China, and targeting the app is an easy way to score political points.