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White: The TikTok ban and the return of the Patriot Act

The Restrict Act is being pushed in Congress to ban apps like TikTok and take a stand against “foreign adversaries” interfering with the sovereignty of our nation. But is that what it’s really for?
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

I’m sure by now you have heard rumblings of the TikTok ban that is currently floating around Congress. TikTok, the most popular app in the world over the last few years, has come under a lot of scrutiny for its potential to sell user data and manipulate users.

Considering recent events, Congress should probably be more concerned about Discord when it comes to information leaks, but I digress.

During their questioning of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, Congress made their technological ignorance readily apparent. There are plenty of clips online that you can find if you want to feel true disgust for those we’ve elected to run our country.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Georgia), for example, claimed during the hearing that TikTok measures users’ pupil dilation. He was also unable to comprehend that face filters need to match up with users’ eyes in order to function.

This was a fair critique from Carter, as we all know the best way to gauge user engagement isn’t quantifiable metrics like comments, likes or watch time. Instead, obviously, the best way is constant video analysis of pupil dilation.

Those of us with brown eyes are truly lucky, as we can escape this invasive eye examination.

Rep. Cathy Rodgers (R-Washington) raised an interesting point about the potential to restrict speech on the app, questioning Chew on whether the app restricted the spread of information on the Uyghur genocide and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

A valid point, until you search for either issue on TikTok and find there is plenty of content on the app covering both, most of which is very critical of the Chinese government.

This is not to say TikTok is a platform of perfect free speech. There have been plenty of reports concerning TikTok’s propensity to restrict content critical of China. One such case was in 2019 during protests in Hong Kong. TikToks about these protests seemed to be censored.

So, what does Congress plan to do about these perceived transgressions? Their answer is the Restrict Act, which would function as their go-ahead to ban apps like TikTok.

The Restrict Act would “authorize the Secretary of Commerce to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes.”

Who are these foreign adversaries? Anyone the Secretary of Commerce, with consultation from “the proper executive department and agency heads,” deems to have a history of behavior in conflict with U.S. national security.

This list already includes China, Iran, Russia and several others. These restrictions will effectively function as technological trade bans.

The Secretary of Commerce would also have the ability to take any desired measure to address “any risk arising from any covered transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” that posed any undue risk to the U.S.

This undue risk applies to subverting elections and infrastructure, any illegal activity meant to undermine democracy or anything else deemed threatening to the U.S. and its people.

So, the Secretary of Commerce could mark countries as foreign adversaries in a weird cyber Cold War and could take basically any action necessary to deter potential threats to the U.S., including the actions of our citizens.

The Restrict Act doesn’t stop at mobile apps, by the way. It extends to almost any electronic device or software you can think of, including webcams.

So, what needs to happen in order for a citizen to have their most basic privacies stripped from them? Well, whatever the Secretary of Commerce wants.

These undue threats can be defined by any “source of information that the Secretary determines appropriate.” So, the Secretary of Commerce can do essentially whatever they choose to deal with threats determined by them through whatever source they choose.

I don’t know about you, but this is starting to remind me of the Patriot Act, which was actually cited within the Restrict Act in reference to the term “critical infrastructure,” funnily enough.

In the wake of 9/11, the Patriot Act was formed as a measure to protect the U.S. and its citizens from terrorist attacks on our aforementioned critical infrastructure.

That all sounds nice and good, except for the part where it was used as a way to unconstitutionally surveil countless American citizens and clandestinely collect information on millions of phone calls.

The Restrict Act would give our government the ability to violate our privacies in the name of fighting whatever they deem to be an unacceptable risk. This vagueness in what constitutes such a risk leaves room for the exact kind of surveillance perpetrated under the Patriot Act.

We know that user data is being collected somewhat shadily by TikTok, but the Restrict Act will only serve to enact the same types of control that Rep. Rodgers had alluded to earlier, yet by our government onto its own people.

If we take the Restrict Act at face value and assume nothing will happen to infringe upon the privacy of the average American, we are setting ourselves up to once again be betrayed by our government.

The NSA had no problem abusing the Patriot Act to monitor civilians at an alarming rate. Given the go-ahead from the Secretary of Commerce, what stops them from monitoring every email, Zoom call, DM or post you’ve ever made, sent or received?

Don’t be tricked into thinking a TikTok ban is what’s best for the American people. This act won’t free us from surveillance and misinformation, it will simply change who’s surveilling us and to what extent.

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