AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
As pressure mounts on Congress to address concerns over TikTok, one proposed bill to ban the popular social media app completely has done the seemingly impossible – create bipartisan coalitions supporting and opposing the legislation.
Debate over TikTok reached new heights following CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress late last month, where several lawmakers hammered Chew over concerns that the company could be funneling sensitive information about American users to the Chinese Communist Party.
Although several bills banning TikTok have been introduced, the legislation that appears to have the most momentum – and is driving the most controversy – is the “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act” or the “RESTRICT Act.”
The bill was introduced in early March by Democrat Senator Mark Warner of Virginia in conjunction with Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota. It currently has 13 Republican cosponsors and 12 Democrat cosponsors, as well as the support of the White House. But detractors – ranging from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the “Squad” on the left to staunch conservatives like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and members of the House Freedom Caucus on the right – say it goes far beyond the scope of simply banning one website and allocates too much power to the government.
Although the RESTRICT Act doesn’t name TikTok specifically, it outlines a new process whereby the federal government can restrict tech products that “threaten national security,” specifically naming China Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela as “adversary nations.” Warner and other supporters have indicated that TikTok would be the first target if the bill were passed into law.
In a joint press release, Warner and Thune described the RESTRICT Act as “establish[ing] a risk-based process, tailored to the rapidly changing technology and threat environment, by directing the Department of Commerce to identify and mitigate foreign threats to information and communications technology products and services.”
But despite initial bipartisan support, the bill has also drawn intense scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats for their part have offered a more full-throated defense of TikTok generally. Soon after the RESTRICT Act was introduced, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a video (on TikTok, no less) minimizing privacy concerns.
“Do I believe TikTok should be banned? No,” the New York lawmaker said. “It just doesn’t feel right to me.”
Fellow “Squad” member Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) joined Ocasio-Cortez in defending the Chinese app, saying that “TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting.”
This position has been blasted by conservatives as willfully obtuse to the threat posed by TikTok. Although Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman raised the valid point that TikTok is just one of many social media apps that collects data on users without their knowledge, they failed to mention that TikTok is the only major platform owned by a foreign company – Bytedance – which is required to report any and all data it collects to the Chinese Communist Party under the provisions of a 2017 Chinese law.
It is worth noting that TikTok has become a primary platform for the left to reach young people, a fact that likely factors into Democrats’ hesitancy to ban it. The app is rife with adults spreading left-wing concepts like radical gender theory and poisoning kids against conservatives by disseminating false or misleading information.
A report from the Daily Wire has also revealed that Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats who have defended TikTok have ties to organizations that have received funding from Bytedance or have themselves accepted money from TikTok’s parent company.
Republicans’ concerns have been more diverse and nuanced. Although GOP lawmakers are united in believing action is needed to stop TikTok’s access to Americans’ personal data, as well as to address the damaging and often dangerous information the app hammers into the minds of children, they’re not all in agreement on whether or not a blanket ban is the best path forward.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has long garnered a reputation as the most libertarian-minded member of the upper chamber, opposes any ban on free speech grounds. In an op-ed for USA Today last week, Paul worried that banning TikTok would amount to “censorship,” going on to say, “If you don’t like TikTok or Facebook or YouTube, don’t use them. But don’t think any interpretation of the Constitution gives you the right to ban them.”
Other Republicans have expressed support for banning TikTok in general but opposition to the RESTRICT Act specifically. Many have compared the bill to a “digital PATRIOT Act,” arguing that it provides far too much power to the government to monitor and potentially proscribe individuals’ online activity.
Rep. Warren David (R-OH), a Freedom Caucus member, shared a Twitter thread earlier this week outlining some of these concerns, commenting that the RESTRICT Act “build[s] onto a domestic police state” and “is a domestic threat to our Constitution and our way of life.” Freshman Senator JD Vance, another Ohio Republican, has also voiced hesitation, saying, “I think we should ban TikTok. I’m a little bit more concerned with the RESTRICT Act.”
Critics of the RESTRICT Act have pointed specifically to provisions of the bill that empower the Department of Commerce to ban not just TikTok but any internet platform and even access the personal data of any individual deemed a “national security risk.” The scope of this government surveillance power is virtually unlimited, applying to “desktop applications, mobile applications, gaming applications, web-based applications, software, hardware, wireless local area networks, mobile networks, satellite payments,” and more than a dozen other areas where Americans might store online data.
In practice, this means that government bureaucrats would have broad authority to restrict access to any platform they want (including payment processors for cryptocurrency and Bitcoin) and collect information on any American. Furthermore, all of this activity is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests thanks to a short clause tucked away in the back of the bill.
Supporters of the RESTRICT Act have sold it as a ban on TikTok that only applies to foreign adversaries. But as the language of the bill makes clear, much like the PATRIOT Act, the RESTRICT Act can easily be turned inward to target American citizens.
Thus far, the senators pushing the bill have offered little to assuage these fears. But unless they do so soon, the bipartisan coalition backing the legislation might find themselves thwarted by another bipartisan group of lawmakers opposing it.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_.
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