All the Hyped Fear Over TikTok Is Only a Way to Get the Dangerous RESTRICT Act Passed, Which Gives the Government the Power to Ban Apps [Opinion]
While the federal government is massively ramping up fear over foreign apps like TikTok, it seems the real concern should be the former entity usurping the power to “disrupt,” “mitigate,” and outright ban apps at will. The plan to give the government such power is outlined in the RESTRICT Act legislation, which appears to use the “problem-reaction-solution” gambit to convince Americans that a single person in the Department of Commerce should be allowed to ban apps.
Over the past few months, U.S. lawmakers have made moves to ban the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok. Republicans and Democrats alike have joined together to voice their concern with the app, citing security issues. A key step in this plan, recently endorsed by the White House, is legislation going through the Senate that seeks to enable the Commerce Department to restrict or ban TikTok and other technologies that “pose national security risks” (Senator Mark Warner’s wording.)
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan—who reporter Seymour Hersh said was instrumental in the Biden Administration’s decision to bomb the Nord Stream pipelines—supposedly supports the Senate bill because it will help the U.S. government’s “ability to address discrete risks posed by individual transactions, and systemic risks posed by certain classes of transactions involving countries of concern in sensitive technology sectors.” Sullivan urged Congress “to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk,” suggesting President Joe Biden will sign it immediately.
As for the Act itself, it’s also sponsored by John Thune (R-SD), and has been dubbed The RESTRICT Act. The RESTRICT Act claims it stands as “the solution” (literally) to the problem of “foreign technology, including telecommunications equipment, social media applications, security software, and e-commerce platforms [entering] the U.S. market and [becoming] increasingly embedded within our information and communications networks, posing novel threats to U.S. citizens’ data, U.S. critical infrastructure, the privacy of Americans and businesses’ communications, our information ecosystem, and security of everyday products.” The apps and other tech cited as posing a threat include, of course, TikTok, as well as Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay.
According to the outline presented by Warner and Thune, the RESTRICT Act would “Require the Secretary of Commerce [currently the former governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo] to establish procedures to identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, and mitigate transactions involving information and communications technology products in which any foreign adversary has any interest and poses undue or unacceptable risk to national security.” The Act would also “Ensure comprehensive actions to address risks of untrusted foreign ICT by requiring the Secretary to take up considering of concerning activity identified by other USG entities,” as well as “coordinate with the Director of National Intelligence to provide classified information on how transactions denied or otherwise mitigated [pose] undue or unacceptable risk.”
Of course, some questions surrounding this language immediately arise. Is it possible, for example, that Raimondo could abuse this power, “disrupting” or “prohibiting” communications on apps? Is it possible giving a single person in government the ability to ban apps outright could backfire in some (extremely foreseeable) way?
If this sounds like hyperbole, it is assuredly not. In the video immediately below Thune, speaking to the press, says that this legislation could “ultimately lead to banning platforms like TikTok.” A Reuters article from March 8 of this year noted that Raimondo would ultimately be the single person “to identify and address foreign threats…”
And is it possible that this powerful censorship apparatus could be turned on the American people and apps created here in the U.S.? It seems impossible to argue against that possibility when that is exactly what has happened with the “Global Engagement Center,” which began as a foreign propaganda tool, but quickly became a domestic one. (Read more about the GEC in the post embedded at bottom.)
It’s not necessarily alarmist to think TikTok could pose a security concern. But if TikTok tracking your location, metadata, in-app conversations, etc. is so harmful, why isn’t it harmful when Facebook and Instagram do it? Both Facebook and Instagram are able to gather data on their users’ locations, web browsing activity, and demographics, and can even monitor every keystroke typed in the in-app browser. (All of the data harvesting capabilities by these social media companies are laid out on Instagram and Facebook’s policies.)
Considering that, what’s to stop Raimondo from saying “foreign adversaries” are using these apps to nefarious ends, and then using that excuse in order to gain control over them? (The only thing worse than giant corporations having all of your data, by the way, is big government having it as the government both makes the laws and breaks them with impunity.)
David Kennedy, a tech entrepreneur who recently appeared on CNBC, pushed back on an outright ban on TikTok. “Banning an entire company and its product is probably a bit of an overstep,” Kennedy explained. Kennedy, a former NSA and Marine Corps hacker, said that U.S. government employees or contractors not being allowed to download the app is reasonable and also called for an “accreditation process” to ensure that the data that are being collected on U.S. citizens are stored in a way where the Chinese government cannot have access to them. Of course, it sounds like the U.S. government still would.
Feature image: Alexander Shatov
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