Data privacy and free speech advocates on Tuesday sounded the alarm about "hypocrisy and censorship" as U.S. House Republicans pushed for a bill to effectively ban TikTok, a video-sharing platform created by the Chinese company ByteDance, across the country.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) held a hearing on "combating the generational challenge of CCP aggression," referring to the Chinese Communist Party, after introducing the Deterring America's Technological Adversaries (DATA) Act last week.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-based group Fight for the Future launched a #DontBanTikTok campaign opposing the bill (H.R. 1153).
"If policymakers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for strong data privacy laws."
"If it weren't so alarming, it would be hilarious that U.S. policymakers are trying to 'be tough on China' by acting exactly like the Chinese government," said Fight for the Future director Evan Greer. "Banning an entire app used by millions of people, especially young people, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, is classic state-backed internet censorship."
"TikTok uses the exact same surveillance capitalist business model of services like YouTube and Instagram," she stressed. "Yes, it's concerning that the Chinese government could abuse data that TikTok collects. But even if TikTok were banned, they could access much of the same data simply by purchasing it from data brokers, because there are almost no laws in place to prevent that kind of abuse."
According to Greer, "If policymakers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for strong data privacy laws that prevent all companies (including TikTok!) from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does exactly nothing to protect anyone."
Fight for the Future's campaign includes a petition that is open for signature and sends the same message to lawmakers: "I want my elected officials to ACTUALLY protect my sensitive data from China and other governments. Stop feeding moral panic and pass a real data privacy law to stop Big Tech companies—including TikTok!—from harvesting and abusing our personal data for profit."
In addition to sharing the petition and highlighting the inadequacy of U.S. privacy laws, the campaign site notes that the ACLU is also opposing McCaul's bill, and on Sunday sent a letter to him and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the panel's ranking member.
"Having only had a few days to review this legislation, we have not included a comprehensive list of all of H.R. 1153's potential problems in this letter," wrote ACLU federal policy director Christopher Anders and senior policy counsel Jenna Leventoff. "However, the immediately apparent First Amendment concerns are more than sufficient to justify a 'no' vote."
"This legislation would not just ban TikTok—an entire platform, used by millions of Americans daily—but would also erode the important free speech protections included within the Berman Amendment," they continued. "Moreover, its vague and overbroad nature implicates due process and sweeps in otherwise protected speech."
The letter explains that 35 years ago, the Berman Amendment "removed the president's authority to regulate or ban the import or export of 'informational materials, including but not limited to, publications, films, posters, phonograph records, photographs... artworks, and news wire feeds' and later electronic media."
In a statement, Leventoff declared that "Congress must not censor entire platforms and strip Americans of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression."
"Whether we're discussing the news of the day, livestreaming protests, or even watching cat videos," she said, "we have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world."
Notably, Meeks spoke out against the bill during Tuesday's hearing. Reutersreports that the ranking member "strongly opposed the legislation, saying it would 'damage our allegiances across the globe, bring more companies into China's sphere, destroy jobs here in the United States, and undercut core American values of free speech and free enterprise."