Editor’s Note: Evan Greer is an activist, writer and musician based in Boston. She’s the director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, and a regular commentator on issues related to technology policy, LGBTQ communities and human rights. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer or Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more opinion on CNN.
The US government is racing ahead with proposals aimed at banning TikTok, the viral video platform used by more than 150 million Americans. Officials say it’s a matter of national security, gesturing urgently toward TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and its ties to China.
While some might be motivated by thinly-veiled xenophobia, lawmakers also rightly point to concerns about TikTok’s surveillance and capitalist business model, which vacuums up as much personal information about users as possible and then uses it to serve content that keeps us clicking, scrolling, and generating ad revenue. TikTok “spies” on us for profit. That’s not in question.
The problem is that – while they might not be owned by a Chinese company – Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter all do it too, as privacy advocates have been warning for more than a decade. Banning TikTok won’t make us safer from China’s surveillance operations. Nor will it protect children, or anyone else, from getting addicted to Big Tech’s manipulative products. It’s just an ineffective solution that sounds good on TV.
While many governments engage in internet censorship and surveillance, China certainly has one of the most sophisticated and draconian systems. A core characteristic of China’s censorship regime is the “Great Firewall,” which blocks foreign social media apps, news sites and even educational resources like Wikipedia, under the guise of protecting national security.
As they hyperventilate about TikTok, US politicians are so eager to appear “tough on China” that they’re suggesting we build our very own Great Firewall here at home. There is a small but growing number of countries in the world so authoritarian that they block popular apps and websites entirely. It’s regrettable that so many US lawmakers want to add us to that list.
Several of the proposals wending their way through Congress would grant the federal government unprecedented new powers to control what technology we can use and how we can express ourselves – authority that goes far beyond TikTok. The bipartisan RESTRICT Act (S. 686), for example, would enable the Commerce Department to engage in extraordinary acts of policing, criminalizing a wide range of activities with companies from “hostile” countries and potentially even banning entire apps simply by declaring them a threat to national security.
The law is vague enough that some experts have raised concerns that it could threaten individual internet users with lengthy prison sentences for taking steps to “evade” a ban, like side-loading an app (i.e., bypassing approved app distribution channels such as the Apple store) or using a virtual private network (VPN).
But banning TikTok isn’t just foolish and dangerous, it’s also unconstitutional. The strong free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment bar the government from extreme actions like criminalizing an app that millions of people use to express their opinions and ideas. The US government can’t ban you from posting or watching TikTok videos any more than they can stop you from reading a foreign newspaper like the Times of India or writing an opinion piece for The Guardian.
The Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN all have their own official TikTok accounts, as do numerous candidates for office, elected officials, academics, journalists, religious leaders and political figures. Any proposal that results in TikTok’s effective ban in the US would almost certainly fall apart under a legal challenge, as the American Civil Liberties Union and other experts have asserted. Even conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky agrees that banning the app would violate Americans’ right to free speech.
A ban on TikTok wouldn’t even be effective: The Chinese government could purchase much of the same information from data brokers, which are largely unregulated in the US.
The rush to ban TikTok – or force its sale to a US company – is a convenient distraction from what our elected officials should be doing to protect us from government manipulation and commercial surveillance: passing basic data privacy legislation. It’s a matter of common knowledge that Instagram, YouTube, Venmo, Snapchat and most of the other apps on your phone engage in similar data harvesting business practices to TikTok. Some are even worse.
So it’s not just TikTok. Much of what you do in the digital space on all of your devices is tracked. Companies that engage in the practice claim that they track users’ activities online in order to deliver more targeted advertising and content.
Many companies sell the data they harvest to third parties, who sell it to fourth and fifth and sixth parties. While companies collect this data for the purpose of extracting profit and getting users hooked on their products, governments have long taken an interest.
The only way to stop governments from weaponizing data that private companies like TikTok collect and store about us is to stop those companies from collecting and storing so much information in the first place. You can’t do that with censorship. You do that by passing a strong national data privacy law that bans companies from collecting more data about us than they need to provide us with the service we’ve requested.
Instead of helping Big Tech get bigger by banning a major competitor, Congress should also pass antitrust legislation to crack down on anti-competitive practices. That would give concerned parents and internet users who want to ditch TikTok and Instagram better options to choose from, and reduce the power of the largest platforms, making them harder for governments to exploit and manipulate. It’s much harder for bad actors, whether they’re corporate trolls or government agents, to control information across a constellation of smaller platforms, each with their own rules and algorithms, than it is for them to poison the well when there are a tiny handful of companies controlling access to information.
A separate concern that lawmakers and US officials have raised is the idea that the Chinese government could pressure TikTok to amplify propaganda, or otherwise change its algorithm to advance the government’s interests. It’s an argument that’s not entirely without merit.
We know the Russian government was effective in manipulating information on Facebook during the 2016 elections. The US has historically engaged in similar conduct overseas. Consider, for example, the US history in influencing the outcomes of elections in Latin America or disinformation campaigns by US allies after the Arab Spring. State-backed disinformation campaigns are happening at a mass scale and on every major platform. We fight that by demanding more transparency and accountability, not more censorship.
It’s a national embarrassment that we have no basic data privacy law in the United States. And it’s a travesty that we continue to allow unregulated tech monopolies to trample our rights. Every day that our elected officials spend wringing their hands and spreading moral panic about what the kids are doing on TikTok is another day we’re left vulnerable and unprotected.
With any luck, Washington’s TikTok hysteria will fade quickly. Let’s hope the next hot new trend in the nation’s capital is passing actual laws that protect people, starting with strong privacy and antitrust legislation.