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House Passes Bill That Would Effectively Ban TikTok

The House voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would effectively ban TikTok, the wildly popular video app with some 170 million users in America and a billion worldwide. 

The bill, dubbed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act,  would force TikTok’s parent company Bytedance to sell the app in six months. Should Bytedance be unable or refuse to comply, app stores would have to remove it and internet service providers would have to make it inaccessible. While its current user base who already have downloaded the app could keep it on their phones, they would not be able to download any new software updates. The bill passed with a 352-65 vote.

Proponents of the bipartisan bill have taken a kitchen sink approach in arguing for banning or at least curbing TikTok’s influence in America. Members of both political parties and intelligence officials say the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans, interfere in elections, or push propaganda in the country. They also argue that TikTok use has and can have a negative impact on younger Americans. 

"You had member offices being deluged with calls, you know, teenagers crying and one threatening suicide and one impersonating one of my colleague's sons," Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WIS), lead Republican sponsor of the bill and Chair of the House Select Committee on China told NPR. "That, to me, demonstrates how the platform could be weaponized in the future."

The bill's backers have also bizarrely argued that the legislation is not in fact, a ban. "What we're after is, it's not a ban, it's a forced separation," Gallagher told NPR. "The TikTok user experience can continue and improve so long as ByteDance doesn't own the company." Former Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said "this is not an attempt to ban TikTok, it's an attempt to make TikTok better. Tic-tac-toe, a winner.”

Despite recently starting its own channel on the platform, the White House has signaled it would sign the bill if it clears the Senate. 

Officials say that classified and unclassified security assessments have shown the app is a threat to Americans, but have not offered any evidence publicly outside of theoretical possibilities. 

While TikTok’s data collection is more than troubling to anyone concerned about privacy, the only difference between it and other social media behemoths like Meta (Facebook/Instagram), Twitter (now known as X), YouTube, and others is that it’s not an American company scraping up all of your personal data. Apps are constantly scooping up massive amounts of data and selling them to third parties, and some of that makes its way to both the American and other governments, intelligence agencies, and even the military. 

Even the most mundane apps like ones for dating, weather, and directions are giving nearly real-time location data to all sorts of entities, according to a story published in Wired adapted from the book Means of Control: How the Hidden Alliance of Tech and Government Is Creating a New American Surveillance State by Byron Tau. Tau writes:

“I’m here to tell you if you’ve ever been on a dating app that wanted your location or if you ever granted a weather app permission to know where you are 24/7, there is a good chance a detailed log of your precise movement patterns has been vacuumed up and saved in some data bank somewhere that tens of thousands of total strangers have access to. That includes intelligence agencies. It includes foreign governments. It includes private investigators. It even includes nosy journalists.” 

The influence social media can have on the public is equally troubling, but once again, the concern seems to be that if it’s an American company, attempting to push public perception in one way or another is completely fine. While officials are concerned about foreign entities influencing American elections, it seems that American companies that do so get a pass. In 2018, whistleblowers showed how a data firm, Cambridge Analytica, used Facebook to harvest the data of tens of millions of Americans and create personality profiles for them in the 2016 election, which helped lead to the election of Donald Trump as President. 

Privacy and free speech advocates argue that the bill is ineffective and sets a dangerous precedent. A letter signed by a coalition of groups including the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Knight Institute, and others called the legislation “censorship - plain and simple,” and said that jeopardizing access to TikTok jeopardizes access to free expression. 

“Banning or requiring divestiture of TikTok would also set an alarming global precedent for excessive government control over social media platforms. The United States has rightfully condemned other countries when they have banned specific social media platforms, criticizing these efforts as infringing on the rights of their citizens. If the United States now bans a foreign-owned platform, that will invite copycat measures by other countries, banning American-owned speech intermediaries and companies from operating in their borders, with significant consequences for free expression globally.”

The groups argue that an outright ban is not only “far from the least restrictive solution to the purported problem,” but ineffective because the Chinese government could just find a workaround to access the data. “If Congress wants to protect Americans’ data, it should pass comprehensive privacy legislation,” the letter reads. 

American tech and financial oligarchs are already chomping at the bit to acquire TikTok. According to Business Insider, former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has expressed interest in buying the platform, as has OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday he’s building a group of investors to buy the site, CNBC reports

Should the forced sale of TikTok go through to any of those entities or another, it’s entirely possible Congress will continue to allow all its concerns about the platform to fade away, simply because it will have a “made in the USA” sticker stamped on it. The only way to really protect Americans from justifiable concerns over privacy, according to advocates, is to prevent any company from collecting it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation writes:

“Instead of passing this overreaching and misguided bill, Congress should prevent any company—regardless of where it is based—from collecting massive amounts of our detailed personal data, which is then made available to data brokers, U.S. government agencies, and even foreign adversaries, China included. We shouldn’t waste time arguing over a law that will get thrown out for silencing the speech of millions of Americans. Instead, Congress should solve the real problem of out-of-control privacy invasions by enacting comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation.”



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