Legislation pitched as ‘protection from TikTok’ poses serious threat to civil liberties

Endless scrolling on the For You page for entertainment and news has made TikTok a part of day-to-day life for more than 150 million Americans. But what happens when this access to information might be a security risk? The enormous platform that this site has accumulated makes it difficult for a total ban to be a solution. If brought to court, under a strict scrutiny analysis, the government will have to prove that they have a real and verifiable reason to get involved, which is not yet the case here, according to the Supreme Court and lower courts. They have held that a claim of national security alone is not enough to justify the ban, according to a March 24 New York Times article. Unless significant evidence of a threat is uncovered, and soon, the First Amendment will become a wall that congress cannot ignore.

In the past few years, the constitutionality and legality of Twitter and Facebook’s choice to censor speech on their platforms have been questioned over and over again. But the simple fact that these sites are owned by public companies and not the government means the core of the case is not a civil liberty issue. The federal government is inching toward a national ban on a platform that Americans use to reach audiences across the world. Companies use it to gain traction, influencers use it as their main source of income and even news sites use it to promote their stories. As the Supreme Court and lower courts have held, according to a March 24 New York Times article, national security alone is not a justifiable excuse for the suppression of First Amendment rights. Social media has become a huge source of communication and therefore a slippery slope for government intervention. 

TikTok is a subsidiary of ByteDance, a Chinese company that, under law, may be forced to provide user data they acquire to the Chinese government, according to a March 23 New York Times article. Although TikTok has denied allegations that they have given data to the government, the decades of tension and distrust between the U.S. and China have caused little faith in this assertion from the media company, which is dually headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles. But security of user data isn’t the only national security concern. The ownership from ByteDance has also instilled suspicion that algorithms are being used to control and restrict certain narratives. There are current accusations that the app has censored content regarding Tibetan independence and the Tiananmen Square massacre, both of which are political issues critical of China, according to the Times.

Despite the obvious need for concern over the lack of clarity of what is being done with U.S. citizens’ data, there’s a reason to be worried about the RESTRICT Act, the legislation proposed in the wake of our government’s attempts to respond to TikTok’s potential threats to security. The bill, introduced March 7 in the Senate, proposes giving the Secretary of Commerce very broad, sweeping powers to regulate technology and business from several foreign countries, including China. Regardless of perspective on TikTok and national security, we should all have faith that our government is set up to prevent all infringing on citizens’ rights, even those that have “good intentions” or ensure our safety. It allows us to feel secure for the future and prevents dangerous precedents that create loopholes for government control of our rights. But pushing through the RESTRICT Act and banning TikTok would be a complete violation of civil liberties, causing the question of what, if anything, constitutes this action as necessary.  

High traffic on social media is so new that little to no precedent has been set. The U.S. has never issued a nationwide total ban on any app ever, let alone a social media site. With the current Supreme Court and their rulings on other topics, we can try to predict what will happen if the ban is issued, but nothing is certain. Broadcasted and casual conversations regarding the ban have seemed to be flooded with opinions on the hearings, the intentions of people in congress and whether or not there’s a significant amount of evidence. There’s been little to no focus on the First Amendment and other civil liberties implications, topics that undeniably will gain more attention as this issue progresses. 

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