The ‘TikTok ban’ is a legal nightmare beyond TikTok

Critics say that if it becomes law, the RESTRICT Act bill could authorize broadly defined crackdowns on free speech and internet access.
TikTok app homescreen on smartphone close-up
You don't need to use TikTok for its potential ban to affect you. Deposit Photos

The fate of the RESTRICT Act remains unclear. Also known as the “TikTok ban,” the bill has sizable bipartisan political—and even public—support, but critics say the bill in its current form focuses on the wrong issues. If it becomes law, it could change the way the government polices your internet activity, whether or not you use the popular video sharing app. 

Proponents of the RESTRICT Act, which stands for “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology,” have called China’s social media app dangerous and invasive. But Salon, among others, has noted that “TikTok” does not appear once throughout the RESTRICT Act’s 55-page proposal. Salon even refers to it as “Patriot Act 2.0” in regards to its minefield of privacy violations.

[Related: Why some US lawmakers want to ban TikTok.]

Critics continue to note that the passage of the bill into law could grant an expansive, ill-defined set of new powers to unelected committee officials. Regardless of what happens with TikTok itself, the new oversight ensures any number of other apps and internet sites could be subjected to blacklisting and censorship at the government’s discretion. What’s more, everyday citizens may face legal prosecution for attempting to circumvent these digital blockades—such as downloading banned apps via VPN or while in another country—including 25 years of prison time.

In its latest detailed rundown published on Tuesday, the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation called the potential law a “dangerous substitute” for comprehensive data privacy legislation that could actually benefit internet users, such as bills passed for states like California, Colorado, Iowa, Connecticut, Virginia, and Utah. Meanwhile, the digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future’s ongoing #DontBanTikTok campaign describes the RESTRICT Act as “oppressive” while still failing to address “valid privacy and security concerns.” The ACLU also maintains the ban “would violate [Americans’] constitutional right to free speech.”

As EFF noted earlier this week, the current proposed legislation would authorize the executive branch to block “transactions [and] holdings” of “foreign adversaries” involving information and communication technology if deemed “undue or unacceptable risk[s]” to national security. These decisions would often be at the sole discretion of unelected government officials, and because of the legislation’s broad phrasing, they could make it difficult for the public to learn exactly why a company or app is facing restrictions.

In its lengthy, scathing rebuke, Salon offered the following bill section for consideration:

“If a civil action challenging an action or finding under this Act is brought, and the court determines that protected information in the administrative record, including classified or other information subject to privilege or protections under any provision of law, is necessary to resolve the action, that information shall be submitted ex parte and in camera to the court and the court shall maintain that information under seal.”

[RELATED: Twitter’s ‘Blue Check’ drama is a verified mess.]

Distilled down, this section could imply that the evidence about an accused violator—say, an average US citizen who unwittingly accessed a banned platform—could be used against them without their knowledge.

If RESTRICT Act were to be passed as law, the “ban” could force changes in how the internet fundamentally works within the US, “including potential requirements on service platforms to police and censor the traffic of users, or even a national firewall to prevent users from downloading TikTok from sources across our borders,” argues the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Because of the bill’s language, future bans could go into effect for any number of other, foreign-based apps and websites. As Salon also argues, the bill allows for a distressing lack of accountability and transparency regarding the committee responsible for deciding which apps to ban, adding that “the lack of judicial review and reliance on Patriot Act-like surveillance powers could open the door to unjustified targeting of individuals or groups.”

Instead of the RESTRICT Act, privacy advocates urge politicians to pass comprehensive data privacy reforms that pertain to all companies, both domestic and foreign. The EFF argues, “Congress… should focus on comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation that will have a real impact, and protect our data no matter what platform it’s on—TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else that profits from our private information.”