You might not be a fan of TikTok or have ever used it before, but plenty of people around the world do. Unfortunately, TikTok has some heinous privacy-invading practices making it more accurately labeled as spyware than a short-form video streaming app. These practices have prompted many people across America to call for a TikTok ban, including those in Congress.
The answer came in the form of the RESTRICT Act, a bipartisan bill senators Mark Warner and John Thune proposed in March 2023. This act would allow the US government to restrict tech products threatening national security, starting with TikTok. The bill doesn’t specifically mention TikTok, but it’s clear the app prompted its creation (at least in public discourse) and will likely be the first to be banned.
While this bill is being sold as a good thing for Americans, in reality, its provisions are alarmingly broad. It also provides the US government with too much power over what platforms, and by extension what information, American citizens can access. On top of this, the bill has some worrying clauses protecting the government from oversight and giving lobbyists more freedom to influence US law.
What is the RESTRICT Act About?
This act contains a lot of charged language concerning “transactions” with “foreign adversaries.” According to its creators, the bill is “a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans.” What it actually does is provide the Secretary of Commerce with wide jurisdiction to decide which platforms and devices Americans have access to.
The bill mentions these measures as a way to prevent foreign interests from interfering with elections and undermining US national affairs. Except, the language used in this bill is much too broad and gives the Secretary of Commerce a lot of leeway to misuse their powers. They can shut down any politically charged content they don’t agree with. Given how easily reality is often skewed these days, they can construe almost anything as political content.
It gives the secretary the power to restrict or ban technology with more than 1 million users if any part of it came from the six “adversary nations” listed in the bill, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. This includes technology across the following categories:
- Web applications
- Mobile applications
- Artificial intelligence
- Machine learning
- Quantum computing
- Post-quantum cryptography
- Autonomous systems
- Advanced robotics
- Synthetic biology
- Computational biology
Under this bill, the government can ban any of these technologies it thinks will interfere “with the US democratic process.” Plus, the bill can be amended at any time to add more countries to the list.
The Act talks about removing the undue influence of special interests shaping the national agenda and drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans. Except, if this was the goal, it would include provisions providing citizens with more power instead of taking away their choice.
It wouldn’t include provisions giving lobbyists more control, while exempting any decisions made under the banner of this bill from all oversight. It also wouldn’t just target foreign companies, while at the same time making it a criminal offense for American citizens to access the platforms they want. If that sounds concerning to you — read on.
Banning TikTok Isn’t Really the Goal — It’s About Control
The concern about TikTok isn’t limited to the US. Canada, the UK, and several European nations have restricted the use of TikTok on government devices. It’s been outright banned in India and even the Danish government warned its journalists against using the app.
They have a point. TikTok is bad for your privacy, without question, but so are Twitter, Amazon, Meta, and Google. A recent study by StockApps found Google tracks the most types of information out of all these companies, while Twitter and Facebook definitely track more information than they need to.
At least one of these companies, Facebook, also has a history of influencing the US elections — remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Not to mention the middle schooler who proved Google’s search results influence political views. These US platforms undoubtedly also have the power to influence and drive US politics, yet the bill isn’t targeting them.
Instead, the RESTRICT Act is giving these companies even more sway over US legislation by providing exemptions for lobbyists from acts restricting their powers. The Act grants exemption for Chapter 10 of Part 1 of Title 5 of the United States Code which limits lobbyists’ powers in influencing government.
This means it gives lobbyists, which includes companies like Meta and Google, the power to serve on advisory committee meetings on how TikTok and other foreign apps and hardware should be handled. These companies are direct competitors and have a clear conflict of interest. If competitors get a say on how other platforms and devices should be handled, they won’t provide impartial opinions. This creates a lot of room for abuse.
The RESTRICT Act Doesn’t Want Restrictions — Or Supervision
Under Section 12, the Act states: “The Secretary under this Act shall not be subject to sections 551, 553, 559, and 701 through 7007 of title 5 of the United States Code.” These sections give US citizens the right to comment on proposed rulemaking, provide the right to request information on who is involved in rulemaking, and the power to repeal a rule.
For example, section 553 says: “It is hereby declared to the policy of the US that the public is entitled to practicable information regarding the decision-making process of the federal government.” The purpose of these acts is to provide the public with information and protect the rights of individuals.
By exempting themselves from these rules, lawmakers can make decisions without US citizens knowing their process or how they came to a decision. If they pass something you don’t agree with or which includes some form of corruption, you have no way of seeing what they did or who was involved.
This prevents citizens from holding anyone involved in the actions covered by this bill accountable. You wouldn’t know who to hold responsible in the first place, and even if you found out, you can’t repeal their decisions.
Criminalizing Freedom of Choice
On top of giving the US government the right to choose which platforms you’re allowed to access, it also wants to criminalize any attempts to get around its website, app, and device bans.
The Act mentions “No person may engage in any transaction or take any other action with intent to evade the provisions of this act.” While it doesn’t explicitly mention VPNs, this provision could be used to prohibit VPN use. This sounds ominous and plenty of online media publications have written about the concerning implications of these provisions in the act.
Rachel Cohen, Communications director for Senator Warner, has responded to calls from the media on this issue by telling Motherboard:
“This legislation is aimed squarely at companies like Kaspersky, Huawei, and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’ national security — not at individual users. The threshold for criminal penalty in this bill is incredibly high — too high to ever be concerned with the actions of an individual user of TikTok or a VPN.”
Despite this reassurance, experts like US Policy Analyst Willmary Escoto still feel this Act brings civil rights concerns with its broad language. Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told Motherboard “[I]t would grant a great amount of power to the executive branch… recent examples around the world, from Israel to China, are showing us the risks that arise from upsetting checks and balances to favor executive power.”
If you look at the wording of the Act under Section 11, which handles penalties, it doesn’t seem to provide a high threshold. For example, it states “It shall be unlawful for a person to violate, attempt to violate, conspire to violate, or cause a violation of any regulation.. or directive issued under this Act.”
The Act goes further to include: “No person may fail or refuse to comply with any reporting or recordkeeping requirements of this Act or any regulation, order… or directive issued thereof.” This language seems to include ordinary US citizens and companies, despite what the senator’s communication director said. It also imposes some pretty severe penalties.
The Restrict Act Should Be Amended
This is a dangerous bill. My co-workers and I regularly post about countries against digital freedom, limiting their citizens’ access to information, and criminalizing ways to access broadly-defined banned content. These are countries with governments giving themselves broad powers to shape what can and cannot be said or seen online.
When I mention these things you may think of countries ranking low on human rights lists, but you’re probably not thinking of the US. The wording in this bill is eerily reminiscent of steps taken by countries actively restricting and limiting their citizens’ digital freedom.
TikTok isn’t a good app for personal privacy. I’ve even talked about this myself, but this ban isn’t providing you with more safety and privacy — it’s only limiting your freedom. Regardless of your feelings about TikTok, it’s not the only platform constantly monitoring you online. Companies like Meta and Google use incredibly invasive technology and track almost everything you do.
These being US-based companies as opposed to TikTok’s parent China-based company doesn’t make a difference to the fact your right to privacy is being violated every day. The answer isn’t to ban foreign technology. The answer is better regulation putting the power back into your hands — not the government and its lobbyists’ hands.
If the US government was interested in protecting you, it would be targeting what makes TikTok unsafe — but that would mean targeting many of the same privacy-invading actions taken by its biggest lobbyists. Instead, this takes away your right to access whatever you want on the internet, and gives the executive branch the power to ban platforms under very broad definitions. It also potentially criminalizes methods to access the platforms you want.
If US citizens want to retain their right to digital freedom, the RESTRICT Act should be amended, regardless of whether politicians say they don’t intend to use it against citizens.