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The Chinese-owned social media giant TikTok has 100 million American users, including an estimated 30 million who are 10-to-19 years old and another 30 million who are 20-29 years old.
Those numbers make it easy to understand why Congress and national security experts have concerns. They worry about the potential for spreading disinformation among young voters during the 2024 election campaign. They also worry that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, could be required by law to turn over its massive accumulation of American users’ personal data to the Chinese government for nefarious purposes, including potential cyber attacks.
On March 7, a bipartisan group of 12 senators introduced a bill known as the RESTRICT Act, which would give the White House expanded powers to control what apps and technologies Americans can access and limit users ability to challenge those actions in court. Former President Trump had tried to ban TikTok nationally in 2020 but was thwarted by the U.S. law that allows for the free flow of information from hostile countries.
Banning TikTok would ratchet up hostilities between the United States and China and pose immense challenges in determining which foreign apps should or should not be banned. It would also make the United States susceptible to criticisms that it isn’t the open democratic country it purports to be. Banning the free flow of information would be taking a page out of China’s playbook.
The Biden administration has been working on two better options:
• Require TikTok to keep U.S. users’ data in servers in the United States. A board of overseers would be selected to prevent data from being sent to China.
• Force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company, reducing the security risk.
Of course, the security concerns wouldn’t be so heightened if Congress had passed laws forcing social media apps to remove disinformation from their platforms. Congress has known for years that Facebook allowed disinformation to flow on its platform during past elections and during the coronavirus pandemic. The same senators who are pushing the RESTRICT Act are fully aware of Facebook’s egregious behavior but have done next to nothing to rein in the abuses.
The same holds true for the collection of user data by U.S. social media companies. Congress has been sitting on a desperately needed Internet Bill of Rights since 2018 but has yet to act. Rep. Ro Khanna’s legislation includes guarantees that would give users access to and knowledge of all collection and uses of personal data by companies; opt-in consent to the collection of personal data by any party and to the sharing of personal data with a third party; and the ability to obtain, correct or delete personal data controlled by any company.
Congress should act to protect the United States against the national security concerns posed by TikTok. At the same time, it should pass long overdue legislation guaranteeing all American users from social media firms’ privacy and disinformation abuses.
Editorial: How U.S. can reduce TikTok national security risk
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