The Washington Post
Civil liberties and digital rights groups rally against U.S. efforts to ban Tiktok
A growing number of civil liberties and digital rights groups are speaking out against calls to ban Tiktok from the United States, mounting fresh resistance to those surging efforts by public officials.
Advocates argue the proposed Tiktok crackdowns would violate users’ rights to express themselves online and distract from broader debates about data privacy.
The burgeoning movement stands in sharp contrast to much of the debate in Washington, where critics have pushed for a ban over claims Tiktok poses grave security risks due to its Beijing-based parent company Bytedance.
Congress took its biggest step yet toward that goal on Wednesday, with a Gop-led House panel advancing a bill to make it easier for President Biden to ban the app nationwide.
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued the measure would protect Americans from potential surveillance at the hands of the Chinese government.
Tiktok has testified that it has never and would never share U.S. user data with China. The assurances seemingly have not done much to allay fears on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are forging ahead with calls for aggressive restrictions against the popular video-sharing platform.
Now those efforts are running into new opposition from advocates who argue calls for a ban are misguided at best and unconstitutional at worst. Here’s where they stand:
The move could violate Tiktok users’ First Amendment rights
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched an online petition calling lawmakers to drop their proposals to ban Tiktok, saying it “would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use the app to express themselves daily.”
A number of prominent civil liberties and digital rights advocates told The Technology 202 that they share the ACLU’S concerns that a ban would infringe on users’ free speech rights.
“A ban on Tiktok … would be like banning a newspaper or TV channel, but worse,” Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told me.
Krishnan added, “It would shut down a channel of communication that tens of millions of Americans use to share information and ideas every day.”
A number of groups previously spoke out when President Donald Trump sought to ban Tiktok, Wechat and other apps linked to China from the United States. Those efforts were repeatedly struck down in court, with judges voicing concern about their First Amendment implications.
The push detracts from the debate on privacy legislation
Several advocates said that if lawmakers are so concerned that China could seize data collected by Tiktok, they should focus on passing federal privacy rules to cover all companies.
On Wednesday, digital rights group Fight for the Future launched a separate #Dontbantiktok campaign online. “Yes, it’s worrying that the Chinese government could access the data that Tiktok collects,” the group’s petition reads. “But Tiktok’s just one head of the hydra.”
The group said it’s calling on lawmakers to “get serious” instead in their talks around data privacy legislation and other guardrails for the tech industry. “We don’t need more hyperventilating about Tiktok: we need strong privacy and transparency laws, and antitrust action to break up the companies getting rich off their data empires,” the group wrote.
Willmary Escoto, U.S. policy analyst at digital rights group Access Now, echoed the sentiment. “If Congress wants to protect human rights online, it should put its energy behind creating and adopting a comprehensive federal data protection package,” Escoto wrote in an email.
It may undermine the United States’ record on free expression globally
While U.S. officials have often decried state censorship by Chinese government officials, Krishnan argued that banning Tiktok would undermine their position.
“One concern I have about America going down this path is losing the moral authority to call out foreign states … when they engage in mass surveillance of their citizens or mass censorship,” Krishnan said.
Krishnan said she was “very concerned” about how quickly Tiktok bills are advancing on Capitol Hill, and that she was struck by the fact more lawmakers weren’t voicing free speech concerns.
“I would hope to see more members of Congress stand up for the First Amendment,” she said.
After House Foreign Affairs advanced its bill Wednesday, the committee’s top Democrat issued a statement bashing Republicans for moving too hastily to ban the app.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said moving ahead without more due diligence would be “harming our national security and infringing on their freedom of expression and speech.”
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo separately said in an interview published Wednesday that “passing a law to ban a single company is not the way to deal with this issue.” She added, “This is America.”
“A ban on Tiktok … would be like banning a newspaper or TV channel, but worse.” Ramya Krishnan, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute