A bill designed to ban TikTok gives the government far-reaching powers to continue its campaign against free speech and expression. Action Alert!
It’s a scenario that’s played itself out countless times in history: under the guise of “protecting” us, the government wants to take away key liberties. The latest assault comes in the form of the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act. The bill is supposed to address the threat of TikTok and other information and communication technology platforms owned by China or other “foreign adversaries.” Whether you believe TikTok should be banned or not, this bill is a massive overreach designed to give the federal government more power over how we communicate. When understood in the context of all the other assaults on free speech and scientific inquiry at almost every level, this bill’s threat becomes that much more significant and dangerous.
RESTRICT Act Basics
Broadly speaking, the bill gives the federal government the power to restrict or ban information and communications services—as well as transactions of those businesses—owned or based in countries considered “foreign adversaries.” The bill allows the government to investigate foreign companies, and those they interact with, to determine if they pose a “national security threat.” The Secretary of Commerce then gives an assessment to the President of what should be done to mitigate the threat, and the President carries out the remedy. The bill also limits judicial oversight and review over these executive and agency actions.
This applies to desktop and mobile apps, gaming apps, payment apps, services integral to artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology companies, and more. It does not apply to US companies but can apply to transactions between US companies and those owned by “foreign adversaries.”
Proponents of the bill claim that individuals shouldn’t be concerned because the focus of the legislation is on “companies like Kaspersky, Huawei and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’ national security.” Yet a close reading of the bill suggests otherwise.
A Climate of Censorship
One of the fundamental changes brought about by the pandemic was a renewed zeal for censoring free speech under the guise of halting the spread of “misinformation.” Spreading scientific “misinformation” about COVID was a threat to public health, the narrative goes, so authoritarian tactics were justified to silence the dissenters. This censorship wasn’t just aimed at the “tin-foil hat” crowd, but extended to anyone who questioned the prevailing narratives—even highly credentialed doctors, scientists, and researchers. The FTC and the FDA launched a massive censorship campaign during the pandemic, sending warning letters to doctors and clinics discussing the benefits of basic natural medicines like zinc and vitamins D and C for COVID treatment and prevention. Doctors recommending any COVID treatments outside of vaccines are being threatened by state medical boards. Organizations like No License for Disinformation also got in on the censorship action. This is the backdrop in which the RESTRICT Act must be read.
The RESTRICT Act gives the government more tools and power to further its efforts at censorship. Its terms, like what constitutes an “undue or unacceptable risk to national security” that can prompt government action under the Act, are intentionally vague, giving the government leeway to go after anything it wants to—such as the free flow of scientific information about using natural medicine against COVID. As referenced above, we’re already seen a systematic effort to censor legitimate science that amounts to an attack on the scientific method itself. The RESTRICT Act furthers this war against science.
We cannot rely on the goodwill of the sponsors of the bill who tell us not to worry, that it is only meant to target companies from foreign adversaries. The wording of the bill does not preclude actions against individual users. For example, there’s a possibility that an individual could face criminal charges for downloading or accessing banned content using a virtual private network (VPN). The bill allows penalties up to 20 years in prison and up to $1,000,000 in fines.
A Slippery Slope to Authoritarian Control
The bill puts us on a dangerous path. The government’s overarching goal is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to have access to unfettered communication. Consider this example: an encrypted messaging app called Telegram was used by grassroots activists to organize the Worldwide Freedom Rally in 2022, a pushback against lockdowns and the removal of civil liberties, as well as other grassroots protests. Authoritarians don’t like this because they cannot monitor the communications on these encrypted messages to snuff out or disrupt challenges to state power. The government wants access to the data from these platforms so they can moderate and control the information they disseminate—the RESTRICT Act is a means towards this end. If Telegram was based in a country deemed a “foreign adversary”—or, the country is deemed a foreign adversary under the RESTRICT Act because Telegram is based there—the US government can begin collecting and monitoring the app’s data and even eventually shut it down completely.
Yes, Congress may need to address the possible threat that China could weaponize its ownership of TikTok and leverage that data to undermine the US, but the RESTRICT Act is not the answer. For one, there are data privacy concerns with all social media platforms, not just TikTok. All the Big Tech companies and so-called “data brokers” harvest our personal data and monetize it, including by selling it to third parties—potentially even the Chinese government! If Congress was really concerned with protecting us, they would focus on comprehensive consumer data privacy solutions that apply to all tech companies. The fact that this isn’t a prominent part of the discussion further suggests that the RESTRICT Act is a Trojan Horse meant to increase the government’s power to censor and surveil, not protect Americans’ privacy.
Further, this bill is a slippery slope: today, the “national security threat” is China and TikTok, but what’s next? Any legislation that gives the government such broad powers to act against vaguely defined threats to national security should give us all pause. It’s not a huge leap to think that the next Worldwide Freedom Rally could be deemed a “security threat” allowing governments to surveil and ultimately undermine or disrupt them, all in the name of “protecting” us.
There have been other federal efforts aimed at censoring speech. Last year, we covered a bill that would have amended the law to make companies like Facebook and Twitter legally liable for promoting “health misinformation” during a declared public health emergency. Thankfully, that bill went nowhere. Currently, the Promoting Public Health Information Act establishes an advisory committee to “report on and make recommendations about, for example, the role and impact of misinformation on responses to public health emergencies and strategies to improve communication during such emergencies.”
There is an insidious game being played here—a game in which scientific and/or medical “misinformation” is used as a justification for ever more authoritarian control, where the only “valid” opinions are those from certain “trusted” institutions. The RESTRICT Act accelerates our movement towards a less free world—we must oppose it.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and tell them to oppose the RESTRICT Act and any other assaults on freedom of speech. Please send your message immediately.