Another attack on TikTok?

After various unsuccessful attempts to restrain TikTok over the past few years, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers has introduced the "Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act".


File photo of the TikTok app on a phone's home page. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

March 11, 2024

BEIJING – To its millions of users in the country, TikTok, the second most popular social media platform in the United States, is a beloved tool of fun, fortune or free speech. To a number of Washington politicians, however, TikTok, with its developer ByteDance being Chinese and headquartered in China, is a tool of the Chinese government that they claim undermines individual privacy and threatens US national security.

So after various unsuccessful attempts to restrain TikTok over the past few years, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers has introduced the “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act”.

Neither the lawmakers nor the bill’s government proponents call it a ban. But it will be, because it gives the US president the authority to ban any app under the pretext of protecting US citizens and the app concerned will be removed from app stores or websites in the US, unless its parent company divests it within 165 days. Another attempt at theft on a grand scale. Something that the US has shown it is not shy of doing on previous occasions.

Given the strong bipartisan support for the bill — all 50 members of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce voted on Thursday to advance the legislation — many expect it to sail through all legislative reviews without much trouble. President Joe Biden has already promised to sign it into law.

Yet banning the app presents legal and moral dilemmas, if not minefields, in this critical election year and it could be a tricky test for either candidate. “This legislation will trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

Jobs are no doubt a sensitive topic in election rhetoric. But the First Amendment implications may prove a far more rigid test, which is why all restrictions engineered so far have ended up abortive.

Although Donald Trump, Biden’s immediate predecessor and potential rival again on the campaign trail later this year, has reversed course and decried the new bill against TikTok, he was the first to attempt a ban, and failed. Trump tried twice to ban TikTok via executive action, but failed with both attempts. Biden signed a bill that banned TikTok on government phones in 2022. But that has in no way dampened public enthusiasm for the app, and an outright ban on it has proved to be a step too far.

According to US constitutional law, Congress cannot simply ban TikTok or any social media platform unless it can prove it poses clear and present dangers that can’t be addressed by any other means. But the lawmakers have yet to provide convincing proof for their allegations of TikTok’s digital espionage or manipulation. On the other hand, the proposed law will definitively threaten free speech.

And there is a moral dilemma facing the Biden administration. It is certainly awkward for the US president to outlaw TikTok while employing it as an election tool himself. They have invited influencers on the app to briefings on the COVID-19 vaccines and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. More recently, the Biden campaign joined TikTok on the night of the Super Bowl. Dozens of social media stars — many of whom are active on TikTok — were invited to the White House last Thursday night, when Biden delivered his State of the Union address.

Such moves are described by the White House as those to meet the American people where they are. But isn’t that at odds with its national security narrative?

The US people don’t see TikTok as a threat. It is only US lawmakers who have no answers to the real problems in US society who are employing it as a saddle for their hobbyhorse to signal their political correctness.

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