TikTok legislation push meets backlash over free speech

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WeChat TikTok Banned
Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of the consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S. (WHD Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) Mark Schiefelbein/WHD
Christopher Hutton

March 31, 03:30 AM March 31, 03:31 AM

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The push in Washington, D.C., to restrict or ban TikTok is meeting fierce resistance from critics who say that free speech is at stake.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would restrict or ban TikTok from the United States over its data collection practices and connection to China.


Some members, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), have pushed for straight bans of TikTok. The legislation backed by the Biden administration, though, is the bipartisan RESTRICT Act proposed by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD), which would not outright ban the social media platform but would instead provide additional powers to the Commerce Department to review information technology deals involving foreign nations of concerns and restrict them on national security grounds.

In recent days, skepticism and opposition to the bills have hardened. Some critics say that the RESTRICT Act would create broad censorship powers.

And a small contingent opposes not just the RESTRICT Act but the idea of a TikTok ban altogether.

“If Republicans want to continuously lose elections for a generation, they should pass this bill to ban TikTok — a social media app used by 150 million people, primarily young Americans,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “Do we really want to emulate Chinese speech bans? … We’re going to be just like China and ban speech we’re afraid of?” Paul spoke after Hawley sought unanimous approval for a TikTok ban.

Paul’s opposition was echoed by members of the “Squad,” a group of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives, who argued that they could counter TikTok’s practices with an expansive privacy plan rather than discriminating based on its Chinese affiliations. Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Jamaal Bowman have come out in support of TikTok and stated that the U.S. needs improved privacy legislation.

A coalition of sixteen public interest groups signed a letter last week arguing that a ban on TikTok was an “ill-advised, blanket approach that would impair free speech and set a troubling precedent.” The groups included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Knight Center, and PEN America.

“Telling American citizens what websites they can visit, and what applications they can use; That’s where [the ban] scares me,” tech industry group NetChoice president Carl Czabo told the Washington Examiner. “That’s where we draw the line.”

Warner dismissed the notion that RESTRICT would affect free speech. The bill is a “systemic, rules-based approach to identifying & addressing foreign tech that could threaten national security,” Warner tweeted on Wednesday. “I stand firmly with free expression & free enterprise.”

Some critics are specifically skeptical of the RESTRICT Act because it gives federal agencies more authority to crack down on certain forms of commerce that they construe as legitimate speech. Some have compared the legislation to the PATRIOT Act, legislation passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that provided law enforcement with additional tools for tracking terrorists over commerce, technology, and communications that critics have long said infringed on civil liberties. They claim that these tools for managing foreign affairs could be used to stifle speech or business.

“If we are correct to worry about personal information in the hands of Chinese government officials, should we not also be wary of empowering an unelected bureaucrat here at home with such broad and vague discretion,” said Jessica Mullin, an executive at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Technology and Innovation. “Talk about throwing the First Amendment baby out with the national security bathwater.”

Critics have also claimed that virtual private networks, AKA VPNs, could become illegal under the RESTRICT Act if a user were to use them to access banned apps by accessing the internet network in a different country. Warner’s team rebutted the allegations and stated that the laws only apply to the companies and not the users.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

TikTok legislation push meets backlash over free speech

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