Ban TikTok, but don’t authorize government overreach

By Garrett Taylor | Guest Contributor

In today’s hyper-connected world, it seems there’s a new social media app popping up on college campuses every day. However, none have captivated our generation quite like TikTok. It’s no wonder news of the RESTRICT Act (S.686) swept the Baylor campus and the country at large as people began to dub it the “TikTok Ban Bill.” However, while taking away everyone’s favorite short-form video platform is noteworthy in its own right, it is a gross oversimplification of a bill that stands to threaten all of our civil rights.

ByteDance and Big Data

Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S.,” Lead sponsor, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said when he spoke on the bill.

When taken at face value, this claim has significant merit as ByteDance’s — a Chinese company — ownership of TikTok is concerning as Chinese Intelligence Agencies are allowed to seize user data from domestic companies. While it remains unclear how China could realistically cause more harm with this data than our domestic companies do through similar tactics, aversion to this data acquisition is understandable.

Unpacking “The TikTok Ban”

The lever Sen. Warner has proposed to restrict TikTok and other technology is an incredibly blunt one. Nowhere in the bill is TikTok even mentioned or alluded to despite its prominence in media attention. Effectively, S.686 places a responsibility on the executive branch to “mitigate” any activity involving communication through technologies owned by a “foreign adversary,” which the President can discretionarily define on a whim.

Essentially, this proposed legislation would prohibit foreign countries that are considered enemies of the United States from possessing or controlling any commonly utilized communication or information technologies in the American market.

While this power is assigned discretionally, there are no checks and balances in place to ensure it is used as such. Avenues for mitigation exist beyond banning as well including censorship, information seizure and strict regulations that do not exist for native technologies. Additionally, later sections of the bill articulate harsh penalties for attempts to evade these restrictions including 20 years of jail time and property seizure.

Implications of Power Without Oversight

Censorship based on foreign attribution rather than content also has profound first amendment implications. Furthermore, it has been estimated over one-third of TikTok users rely on the platform as a quick-service news source and this censorship risks stopping essential mass communication messages. There are virtually no restrictions on the surveillance to enforce S.686, anything from your phone to your thermostat is fair game for observation and can be subsequently shut down. Power of this magnitude with effectively no statutory oversight threatens outcomes similar to those author George Orwell writes.

Mass communication of emergencies may be interrupted, individual autonomy is threatened and privacy is encroached upon. Regardless of where you fall on these issues, one thing is clear: S.686 is about far more than TikTok. Regardless of your position on S.686, it’s important to understand the legislation and its potential consequences.

Share this column with your friends and family to spread awareness about the potential implications of this legislation. Let’s make sure we are all informed about the issues at stake and advocate for policies that protect our rights and freedoms.