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March 14, 2024

A TikTok Ban?

The House passed legislation that could lead to the popular China-owned social media giant being banned in the U.S.

The House has passed a bipartisan bill dubbed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. With a 352-65 vote, it was quite the show of bipartisanship. Texas Representative Chip Roy, a cosponsor of the bill, explained, “This is designed to be a framework that will allow us to ensure that we don’t have the Chinese Communist Party owning American data and using it nefariously against the American people.”

The popular social media app TikTok, owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, is the primary target of this legislation. Beijing has used TikTok to collect massive amounts of data on users. However, unlike Big Tech competitors such as Facebook, TikTok has effectively flouted lawmakers’ concerns.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has repeatedly warned Congress of China’s nefarious information-collecting operation. Just last week, Wray told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that Beijing is increasingly seeking to exert control over what information Americans can access. “When it comes to the algorithm, and the recommendation algorithm, and the ability to conduct influence operations, that is extraordinarily difficult to detect,” Wray said. “And that’s what makes it such a pernicious risk.”

Meanwhile, China has attempted to leverage the millions of Americans using TikTok to pressure Congress not to shut down its powerful data-collecting and manipulating app. Users were even prompted to overwhelm Congress with calls to object. It may have backfired, showing just how influential Beijing could try to be in Washington.

TikTok responded to the House vote by falsely asserting, “This process was secret, and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban.” The company added, “We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realize the impact on the economy, seven million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service.”

And there is the trouble. Despite the fact that a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers agree on stopping China’s abusive use of TikTok to spy on millions of Americans, the app’s popularity may present an obstacle to the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul opposes a TikTok ban and says it makes “no sense.” Asserting that TikTok was banned in China, Paul argued, “We’re thinking — or people who want to ban it are thinking — ‘Wow, we’re going to really defeat the Chinese communists by becoming Chinese authoritarians and banning it in our country’? TikTok is banned in China. So, we’re going to emulate the Chinese communists by banning it in our country?”

Paul further claimed, “We know that the Chinese government does demand things, but we don’t know that any information really is going from TikTok to any of these people in China.”

Paul’s claim about TikTok being banned in China is not quite accurate. While China doesn’t have TikTok, it does effectively have ByteDance’s Chinese version of the app, known as Douyin. However, Douyin’s content is much more limited and censored than TikTok’s, which appears to be the argument Paul was trying to make.

Another political figure who is also opposed to banning TikTok is, surprisingly, Donald Trump. This is a reversal for Trump, who, while president called for banning the app. So, why the change? Is Trump simply playing politics here? Is he changing his stance to win over younger voters?

Well, according to Trump, it has everything to do with Big Tech censorship, with the worst offender being Facebook. “I don’t want Facebook … doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People!” Trump stated on Truth Social.

In other words, from Trump’s perspective, Congress is effectively scapegoating TikTok in order to avoid tackling the bigger problem of Big Tech censorship. That may indeed be the case, at least partially. However, China’s use of TikTok to spy on Americans is no joke, and we should shut down that information pipeline.

And to be fair to the House, the legislation is not actually a ban on TikTok per se, but rather an ultimatum that forces TikTok to cut ties with China and ByteDance to sell the app to some American-owned enterprise. As Wisconsin’s Mike Gallagher, perhaps Congress’s leading China hawk, argues, “The Chinese Communist Party does not have a First Amendment right to conduct malign influence operations in the United States. We need to cut out the Chinese Communist Party tumor from TikTok.”

Indeed, former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced this morning that he supports the legislation “and I’m going to put together a group to buy TikTok.”

So, what will China do? Since Joe Biden has pledged to sign the legislation should the Senate pass it, it presents an interesting conundrum for Beijing. Of course, the Chinese Communists would love nothing more than to see the doddering old Biden win reelection over the prospect of facing another Trump term. But if China refuses to divest TikTok, and it is then banned, that could play right into Trump’s hands.

Republicans, too, might be playing into Democrats’ hands by tacitly embracing the narrative of “dangerous speech” that is promulgating misinformation and disinformation and, therefore, must be controlled and censored. The problem with TikTok is that China is using it as a massive spy tool, not that people use it to spread all kinds of often erroneous information and views. That part is and should continue to be protected under the First Amendment.

After all, without free speech, there can be no Liberty.

(Updated)

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