Opinions, Column

TikTok’s Hearing Means Bad News For U.S. Internet Rights

TikTok needs no introduction. Almost half of all Americans use the wildly popular social media platform for an average of 95 minutes a day. To users of the app, it is a creative outlet to share educational, humorous, or artistic interests with fellow users. To its critics, most prominently found in Congress, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a Chinese tool to spread misinformation and threaten the national security of the United States.

Congress granted itself an opportunity to lambast TikTok in a five-hour long hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce with TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew. What ensued was nothing less than a grueling bipartisan interrogation of Chew. Committee members fought with flared tempers and leading questions, and they generated many viral sound bites. 

Both sides of the political spectrum shared serious criticisms of TikTok, which generally fell into one of two categories: concern for national security or children’s digital safety. Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers asserted that TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, is connected and ultimately subservient to China’s ruling party—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The House argued that, if the CCP desired, it could demand that ByteDance hand over American users’ data to progress any foreign spying plans that the Chinese government may have. Rep. Frank Pallone is a high-ranking member who also voiced concerns, stating that TikTok “exacerbate[s] feelings of emotional stress” in children, harming their physical and mental safety. 

Chew responded that TikTok was being singled out, as other tech companies also sell user data. He downplayed any connection TikTok has to the CCP government while stressing his company’s commitment to protecting the well-being of children.

It’s clear from the aggressive questioning throughout the hearing that Chew was not in a friendly environment. As far as the committee was concerned, TikTok was guilty, and this hearing was an ex post facto justification for a ban on the app. It should be noted that a proposed law, the “Restrict Act,” has seen broad bipartisan support and would empower the executive branch to ban TikTok and any other software deemed potentially dangerous to American national security. 

This is not the first time the government has tried to ban the app. Former President Donald Trump attempted a ban in 2020 before it was struck down by the courts. This time is different, though. The White House and Congress are acting in concert to pass legislation that would greatly increase the federal government’s power in the digital world. If passed, the government could not only ban TikTok, but a wide range of online technologies and services, including digital privacy services like VPNs. The “Restrict Act” is very vague. The bill has very few clearly defined terms and limits about what falls under “sabotage or subversion” and who qualifies as a “foreign adversary.” This ambiguity gives federal agencies and prosecutors great leeway in how they enforce this bill because the act would make “sabotage or subversion” from a “foreign adversary” grounds to ban any online service. 

One would hope that many in Congress would oppose this overly powerful legislation, as it gives a blank check to the government to ban any online service that it can self-define as supporting a “foreign adversary.” Yet, the problem many legislators have with the bill is not its potential infringement on civil liberties. Instead, it is that it does not go far enough! Many members of Congress want to give the government even more power to limit online freedom—despite all their rhetoric about protecting America’s data privacy. They want to provide the executive branch with the ability to remove internet users’ access to certain online services, but no one has introduced a bill in the 118th Congress that would protect internet users’ data. This is a clear hypocrisy. 

There are likely two possible reasons why so many members of Congress support this bill: They are either handing over these powers to the executive because they truly wish to see an unchecked executive regulating Americans’ digital lives, or they are simply unaware of the law’s implications. Unfortunately, both possibilities are major causes for concern: Either our politicians are willing to give up our digital freedom, or they’re too ignorant to realize what they’re doing. 

April 20, 2023