As the RESTRICT Act makes its way through the Senate, the potential TikTok ban has never felt so close to turning into reality.
The Chinese ownership of the popular social media app is, in fact, something that US politicians have always looked at with great mistrust. They are especially worried about how the Chinese party might weaponize users' data or brainwash the youth.
The reality, though, is that Americans have way more to lose and fear if TikTok is finally made illegal in the US—no matter if they might be able to use a VPN service to keep accessing the video-sharing app.
1. Freedom of speech at risk
"A nationwide ban on TikTok would raise serious First Amendment concerns by directly restricting users’ ability to speak and receive information," wrote Caitlin Vogus, Deputy Director of Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT)'s Free Expression Project, in a blog post.
The First Amendment is a legal provision which protects US citizens' freedom of speech even when these communications involve foreign adversaries. This, together with the Berman Amendments, are the main legal obstacles of banning TikTok that the RESTRICT Act seeks to overcome.
TikTok is, arguably, the most downloaded app worldwide, counting over 150 million users in the US alone.
Since becoming mainstream in 2018, the video-sharing app quickly evolved from viral dance videos into a powerful medium of communication—especially among the youngest in society.
Americans increasingly used the Chinese-owned social media to access or share information on pressing issues like police brutality, LGBTQ rights, reproductive health, climate change, and more.
"Some users participate in our democracy through TikTok," said Vogus, adding that making the platform illegal will also cause what's known as a "prior restraint" on speech. This means that the block will enforce a limit on people's speech even before it occurs.
"A ban would prevent the millions of Americans who use TikTok from being able to speak through the app in the future and would prohibit new users from downloading the app," she wrote.
She also pointed out how the Supreme Court has previously rejected the justification of similar bans even when based on national security interests.
2. Disproportionate affect on small businesses
TikTok isn't just about accessing news and activism, it's also a platform that companies increasingly use to publicize their services and products.
That's especially important for small businesses as it represents a more accessible and cost effective way than traditional marketing or advertising campaigns.
"A ban on TikTok will disproportionately affect the smaller companies while the bigger brands will remain afloat because of their big marketing and advertising budgets," Marvin Winkelmann, Managing Director of social media marketing agency AFK, told TechRadar.
3. Far-reaching online surveillance and censorship
Beside curbing the right to free speech and access to information for about a third of the entire American population, making TikTok illegal will also mean giving the US government wider authority to censor and surveil what citizens do online.
"A ban may require internet service providers (ISPs) to engage in filtering to block the service from American users, furthering concerns about prior restraints and potentially opening the door to other types of censorial filtering at the ISP level," noted Vagus from CDT.
Even worse, TikTok is just the tip of the censorship iceberg. The RESTRICT Act could, in fact, prohibit or limit an awful lot of foreign adversary technologies involving the transfer of users' data as long as they are used by more than 1 million US users. These include web applications, AI software, machine learning, quantum computing, post-quantum cryptography and more.
Carrying out this job would likely require equipping the Department of Commerce with new startling powers to censor, monitor, and screen many online services operating in the US.
Ironically, all this would make the United States look startlingly similar to China itself—the country known for its stringent Great Firewall, which US politicians have been long feared and criticized.
The RESTRICT act is the American Great Firewall. Become China in the name of beating China. https://t.co/DBaYz6LRdfMarch 29, 2023
4. Greater security risks
Lawmakers haven't yet confirmed how they intend to restrict the use of the app, but experts believe that a possible scenario might be prohibiting app stores from distributing TikTok across the US.
Despite the logistical and legal issues of such a move, it will also prevent those users who already have the application downloaded on their device from accessing security updates. This would, ultimately, expose them at greater risks of malware attacks.
Commentators also point out how banning TikTok isn't enough to protect people's privacy.
That's because private data brokers can sell citizens data to whoever they wish without facing legal barriers—no matter if these are US law enforcement officers, national intelligence agencies or the Chinese government and its proxies.
This is why privacy experts are calling for lawmakers to pass a comprehensive data privacy law like the proposed ADPPA instead. A vital legislation which the US still lacks.
"Instead of passing this broad and overreaching bill, Congress should limit the opportunities for any company to collect massive amounts of our detailed personal data," wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on its Stop the RESTRICT Act campaign's page.
"Our data must be protected no matter what platform it’s on—TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else that’s profiting from our private information."
5. Hardened online censorship worldwide
Banning TikTok in the United States could also set a precedent for other countries, creating a domino effect able to further curb internet freedom worldwide.
"A ban on TikTok in the U.S. would embolden governments worldwide— authoritarian and democratic alike—to impose their own restrictions on social media services in the name of privacy and national security," said Vagus from CDT.
This scenario is quite grim considering that over half of the world's population suffered internet disruptions in 2022. Social media platforms are notorious for being the first online services to be censored when clamping down on dissident voices while limiting the spread of information in and out a country.
According to experts at EFF, making TikTok illegal would also weaken the credibility of the US government in criticizing similar actions on an international level.
The RESTRICT Act is more than a “TikTok ban.” Tell your representatives to oppose it. https://t.co/UKZs1DoXXeApril 9, 2023
As we have seen, US lawmakers are trying to craft a legal framework to review and restrict information and communications technology services distributed by foreign adversaries deemed a threat to national security. If it becomes law, TikTok will certainly be its first target.
The vague language and lack of accountability proposed by the bill in its current form has managed to accumulate countless critics so far. However, a TikTok ban—no matter how it's enforced—is itself an action with far-reaching negative consequences to Americans' human rights and online security.
Commenting on this point, VPN provider Private Internet Access (PIA) told us: "The RESTRICT Act would impose unacceptable restrictions on citizens’ digital freedom and raises serious questions over how far the government is willing to compromise the privacy rights of its citizens."
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to email@example.com