Keep TikTok protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol

People gather for a press conference about their opposition to a TikTok ban on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 22, 2023.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden Signs TikTok Ban—Among the 'Stupidest and Most Authoritarian' Tech Bills

One critic said that "the bill doesn't touch the homegrown spyware U.S. companies churn out" and "also strikes at the First Amendment right to receive information."

Digital rights defenders on Wednesday slammed the passage of a U.S. foreign aid package containing a possible nationwide TikTok ban as unconstitutional, xenophobic, and ill-advised during an election year in which President Joe Biden desperately needs as many young votes as possible.

Biden signed the $95 billion bill late Wednesday morning after senators voted 79-18 the previous evening to approve the package, which includes tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance for Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel—which is waging a genocidal war against Palestinians in Gaza.

One of the bill's provisions would force ByteDance, TikTok's Chinese parent company, to sell the app to a non-Chinese company within a year or face a federal ban. Approximately 170 million Americans use TikTok, which is especially popular among members of Gen-Z and small-to-medium-sized businesses, and contributes tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy annually.

"Whether it's dressed up as a ban or a forced sale, the bill targeting TikTok is one of the stupidest and most authoritarian pieces of tech legislation we've seen in years," Fight for the Future director Evan Greer said in a statement.

Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU, called the provision "nothing more than an unconstitutional ban in disguise."

"Banning a social media platform that hundreds of millions of Americans use to express themselves would have devastating consequences for all of our First Amendment rights, and will almost certainly be struck down in court," she added.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said:

The First Amendment means that the government can't restrict Americans' access to ideas, information, or media from abroad without a very good reason for it—and no such reason exists here. Repackaging the government's reasons for the ban in the language of "national security" does not change the analysis. There's no national security exception to the First Amendment, and creating such an exception would make the First Amendment a dead letter.

Proponents of the possible ban attempted to spin it as something else and pointed to precedents including the 2020 forced sale of the popular LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr, formerly owned by a Chinese company.

"I want to be very clear: This is not a 'TikTok ban,'" Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who voted to approve the bill, said in a statement. "I have no interest in banning TikTok. This bill will simply make TikTok safer by separating it from the Chinese Communist Party so that the data of 170 million Americans—many of whom are children—is protected."

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said before Tuesday's vote that "Congress is acting to prevent foreign adversaries from conducting espionage, surveillance, maligned operations, harming vulnerable Americans, our servicemen and women, and our U.S. government personnel."

"Banning TikTok without passing real tech regulation will just further entrench monopolies like Meta and Google, without doing anything to protect Americans from data harvesting or government propaganda."

However, Kate Ruane, who directs the Center for Democracy & Technology's Free Expression Project, asserted that "Congress shouldn't be in the business of banning platforms. They should be working to enact comprehensive privacy legislation that protects our private data no matter where we choose to engage online."

Greer said that "not only is this bill laughably unconstitutional and a blatant assault on free expression and human rights, it's also a perfect way to derail momentum toward more meaningful policies like privacy and antitrust legislation that would actually address the harms of Big Tech and surveillance capitalism."

Greer continued:

Banning TikTok without passing real tech regulation will just further entrench monopolies like Meta and Google, without doing anything to protect Americans from data harvesting or government propaganda.

We could be months away from another Trump administration, and top Democrats are busy expanding mass surveillance authority and setting the precedent that the government can ban an entire social media app based on vague 'national security' concerns that haven't been explained to the public.

Some critics questioned the wisdom of Biden signing off on a potential ban of the most popular social media app among many young users during an election year in which many younger voters are disappointed in the president's record on climate, student debt relief, the Gaza genocide, and more.

One user of X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, said earlier this year that signing the bill would demonstrate a "comical level of political malpractice, the equivalent of seeing the rake on the ground and purposefully stepping on it."

Moments after Biden signed the bill, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew vowed, "We aren't going anywhere."

"The facts and the Constitution are on our side and we expect to prevail again," he said, referring to the three times when federal judges blocked efforts to ban TikTok.

In the most recent case, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled last December that a Montana law that would have banned the app "violates the Constitution in more ways than one" and had a "pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment."

It is unclear who would buy TikTok. Analysts estimate the platform is worth upward of $100 billion, placing it out of reach for all but the biggest U.S. tech titans and, ironically, setting up possible antitrust challenges from the very administration that ultimately forced the sale.

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