The idea of banning TikTok is not just a bad idea

Implications of a State-Dependent TikTok Law for Montana’s Speech and Freedom of Speech in the Era of the First Amendment

The rush to ban TikTok is a distraction from what our elected officials should be doing to protect ourselves from commercial and government exploitation of our data. It’s a matter of common knowledge that Instagram, YouTube, Venmo, Snapchat and most of the other apps on your phone engage in similar data harvesting business practices to TikTok. Some are worse than others.

A statewide ban is radically different from a government device embargo and general encouragement, though. It has implications for Montana residents’ speech and ability to hear speech—rights protected under the US First Amendment.

According to The New York Times, Montana attorney general Austin Knudsen says that this won’t get challenged. “I think this is the next frontier in First Amendment jurisprudence that’s probably going to have to come from the US Supreme Court. I think that is where this is headed.

Several of the proposals wending their way through Congress would grant the federal government unprecedented new powers to control what technology we can use and how we can express ourselves – authority that goes far beyond TikTok. The bipartisan RESTRICT Act (S. 686), for example, would enable the Commerce Department to engage in extraordinary acts of policing, criminalizing a wide range of activities with companies from “hostile” countries and potentially even banning entire apps simply by declaring them a threat to national security.

What do we really need to do to protect ourselves against the wrongs? Introducing our very own Great Firewall: Why China should not act more diplomatically on social media

Editor’s Note: Evan Greer is an activist, writer and musician based in Boston. She’s the director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, and a regular commentator on issues related to technology policy, LGBTQ communities and human rights. You can follow her on or off the internet. Read more opinion on CNN.

As they hyperventilate about TikTok, US politicians are so eager to appear “tough on China” that they’re suggesting we build our very own Great Firewall here at home. There is a small but growing number of countries in the world that are so authoritarian that they block popular apps and websites. It’s disappointing that many US lawmakers would like to add us to their list.

While many governments engage in internet censorship and surveillance, China certainly has one of the most sophisticated and draconian systems. Under the guise of protecting national security, China’s censors block foreign social media apps, news sites and even educational resources, according to a prominent feature of its censorship regime.

The law is vague enough that some experts have raised concerns that it could threaten individual internet users with lengthy prison sentences for taking steps to “evade” a ban, like side-loading an app (i.e., bypassing approved app distribution channels such as the Apple store) or using a virtual private network (VPN).

Many companies sell the data they harvest to third parties, who sell it to fourth and fifth and sixth parties. While companies collect this data for the purpose of making a profit, governments are more interested in getting users hooked on their products.

The Russian government was involved in manipulating information on Facebook during the 2016 elections. The US has engaged in the same conduct overseas before. Consider, for example, the US history in influencing the outcomes of elections in Latin America or disinformation campaigns by US allies after the Arab Spring. State-backed campaigns are being carried out on a mass scale. We fight that by demanding more transparency and accountability, not more censorship.

We have no data privacy laws in the United States, so that is a national embarrassment. It is a travesty that we allow unregulated tech monopolies to do anything that jeopardizes our rights. Every day that our elected officials spend wringing their hands and spreading moral panic about what the kids are doing on TikTok is another day we’re left vulnerable and unprotected.

Washington’s TikTok hysteria will fade quickly, with or without luck. Let’s hope the next hot new trend in the nation’s capital is passing actual laws that protect people, starting with strong privacy and antitrust legislation.

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