Civil and digital rights groups this week joined a trio of progressive U.S. lawmakers in opposing bipartisan proposals to ban the social media platform TikTok, arguing that such efforts are rooted in "anti-China" motives and do not adequately address the privacy concerns purportedly behind the legislation.
The ACLU argues that, if passed, legislation recently introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate "sets the stage for the government to ban TikTok," which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance and is used by more than 1 in 3 Americans. The Senate bill would grant the U.S. Department of Commerce power to prohibit people in the United States from using apps and products made by companies "subject to the jurisdiction of China" and other "foreign adversaries."
"The government shouldn't be able to tell us what social media apps we can and can't use."
"The government shouldn't be able to tell us what social media apps we can and can't use," the ACLU asserted via Twitter. "We have a right to free speech."
In a Wednesday letter led by the free expression advocacy group PEN America, 16 organizations including the ACLU argued that "proposals to ban TikTok risk violating First Amendment rights and setting a dangerous global precedent for the restriction of speech."
"More effective, rights-respecting solutions are available and provide a viable alternative to meet the serious concerns raised by TikTok," the groups contended, pointing to a February proposal by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to expedite a probe of the company by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States as a possible way "to mitigate security risks without denying users access to the platform."
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) has emerged as the leading congressional voice against banning TikTok, saying Wednesday that he fears the platform is being singled out due in significant part to "xenophobic anti-China rhetoric."
"Why the hell are we whipping ourselves into a hysteria to scapegoat TikTok?" Bowman asked in a phone interview with The New York Times while he traveled by train to Washington, D.C. to speak at a #KeepTikTok rally, where content creators, entrepreneurs, users, and activists gathered to defend the platform.
In his speech, Bowman noted that "TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting," and is a place where "5 million small businesses are selling their products and services and making a living... at a time when our economy is struggling in so many ways."
Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the San Francisco-based digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, concurred with Bowman, tweeting Thursday that "if you think the U.S. needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don't care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform."
Two other House Democrats—Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and California's Robert Garcia—joined Bowman in addressing Wednesday's rally.
In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before his speech, Pocan acknowledged "valid concerns when it comes to social media disinformation and all the rest."
"But to say that a single platform is the problem largely because it's Chinese-owned honestly, I think, borders more on xenophobia than addressing that core issue," he stressed.
Garcia, a self-described TikTok "super-consumer," asserted on MSNBC Thursday morning that "before we ban it, I think we should work on the privacy concerns first."
TikTok "speaks to the next generation... LGBTQ+ folks are coming out, people are being educated on topics, I think we need to be a little more thoughtful and not ban TikTok," the gay lawmaker added.
Wednesday's rally came a day before TikTok CEO Zi Chew testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, some of whose members expressed open hostility toward the Chinese government.
"To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you and manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations," said committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).
Chew—who committed to a number of reforms including prioritizing safety for young users, firewall protection for U.S. user data, and greater corporate transparency—took exception to some of the lawmakers' assertions.
"I don't think ownership is the issue here," he said. "With a lot of respect, American social companies don't have a good track record with data privacy and user security."
"I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica—just one example," Chew added, referring to the British political consulting firm that harvested the data of tens of millions of U.S. Facebook users without their consent to aid 2016 Republican campaigns including former President Donald Trump's.