Should the U.S. put limits on TikTok? Probably. But not like this

Born out of mounting fear of surveillance by foreign adversaries, the RESTRICT Act—currently making its way through Congress—would restrict much, much more than it needs to.

by Trevor Corson

Originally published in the Portland Press Herald & Maine Sunday Telegram on April 16, 2023.

How many Mainers, with their well-deserved reputation as rugged and independent individuals, would trade their political rights and civil liberties to live under high-tech authoritarianism – say, in today’s China?

Before you answer, maybe you could try out high-tech authoritarianism firsthand. Residents of Maine, along with other Americans, could sign up for a sort of exchange program, where we get to experience life in the digital age without the basic protections of the U.S. Constitution.

As it happens, lawmakers in Washington D.C. are right now trying to give us this opportunity. Fittingly, the bill they introduced last month in the U.S. Senate is called the RESTRICT Act. The bill is bipartisan, and should be of particular interest to Maine voters because both of Maine’s senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, are listed as co- sponsors.

If the RESTRICT Act passes, living under this new American regime could be enlightening. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the act would open the door to exchanging many of your basic rights for the sort of repression the U.S. government says it opposes in other countries. For example, you’ll be able to see what life in the 21st century is like when your government can decide what information you can and can’t see online, and whom you’re allowed to communicate with, on which kinds of apps. This is what people in China already experience every day.

In addition, you could also learn what it’s like to be arrested without due process, not only for a violation that isn’t clearly defined in any law, but for a violation that you have not actually committed yet – as long as a government official has decided that you might commit such a violation in the future. These Orwellian twists may even be worse than what most people in China face.

And, when you’re arrested, you could also see what it’s like to have the U.S. government confiscate your money and property based simply on suspicion, not on whether you’ve actually been convicted of anything. Moreover, none of this would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Thus no one could even find out why the government decided to make you disappear.

This may all sound like a joke, but under the wording of the RESTRICT Act, all this looks entirely plausible. You can see for yourself, by going on the internet – while you still can – and taking a look. Be warned: it’s a frightening read.


Where the effect is different to the intent

Originally, the point of the RESTRICT Act was to ban the popular Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Indeed, there might be reasons why the U.S. would want to limit TikTok. Obviously, most of us would want to protect everyday Americans from invasions of our privacy by China’s authoritarian government.

But banning TikTok is not what the act does. It doesn’t mention TikTok. Instead, it creates a far-reaching framework for control and punishment. The act is supposed to protect us from China. What it proposes would do more to turn us into China.

The bill’s primary sponsors in the Senate – Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota – have been proclaiming, loudly, that critics are misunderstanding the intent of the RESTRICT Act. They say that the control and punishment provisions in the law are intended to target companies, and only those connected to “foreign adversaries.”

However, the problem with the RESTRICT Act is not the intent. The problem is the actual wording. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the language in the act is “extremely broad and vague” and would have “devastating consequences” and “profound implications for our constitutional right to free speech”.

“Extremely broad and vague” starts with defining “foreign adversaries.” Deciding which countries are “adversaries” can be done basically in secret, at the sole discretion of the Secretary of Commerce and the Director of National Intelligence, without notifying Congress.

After that, the open-ended language of the RESTRICT Act allows almost anything. The U.S. government could deem “any person” a national security threat, and enforce against them “any mitigation measure to address any risk” regarding a “current, past, or potential future transaction” – where “transaction” isn’t really defined, so it could mean virtually any action related to the internet, done by anyone. The language suggests that if something you might do on the internet in the future is deemed unacceptable to the wrong federal official, the U.S. government can fine you a million dollars and put you in prison for 20 years.


Resisting regulatory overreach falls to each of us

As an American I did once have a chance to try out this sort of life on an exchange program, living under an authoritarian regime. After I finished high school in Washington, D.C., I received a scholarship to study in communist China itself. Back then the internet wasn’t yet widespread, but information in China was strictly controlled and the government’s tentacles of surveillance stretched to every street corner. Today, the government of China’s ability to control its people has become fully high-tech and digitized, combining authoritarian laws with internet censorship.

When I lived in China, the everyday people I knew there were wonderful. But it was an enormous relief when I returned to the freedoms and rights I had in the U.S. When I later moved to Maine to work in the lobster industry, and then ended up writing a book about how independent waterfront communities in Maine had pushed back against ill-conceived federal government overreach, I learned valuable lessons about how we all have to protect democracy and keep it healthy. Even then, though, it never occurred to me that my own government could one day come up with a law as deadly to our political rights and civil liberties as this.

For the RESTRICT Act to be stopped will take pushback from all of us. This is not a partisan issue; the RESTRICT Act threatens to steal away some of our most basic constitutional rights. And even if the act is stopped, we must keep our eyes open. Our legislators on Capitol Hill have a bad habit of sneaking in unpopular or anti-democratic legislation in the dead of night, as last-minute attachments to other bills or funding packages.

Earlier this month, one of America’s most vigilant watchdog journalists who tracks the workings of Congress, the resolutely nonpartisan Jennifer Briney, warned in a podcast episode that exactly this could happen with the RESTRICT Act.


If RESTRICT is not the solution, what is?

Although I’m a Maine voter, right now I’m on another exchange program of sorts. Because of my spouse’s job, I’m living in Finland, which has a different approach to dealing with the internet – an approach I believe we could learn from.

While Finland looks almost exactly like Maine – with the same kind of rugged coast and fir trees and shimmering stands of birch – Finland scores higher than the U.S. on political rights and civil liberties, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Freedom House. One of the ways that Finland, and Europe generally, protect citizen rights better than the U.S. is by protecting people’s data privacy on the internet.

Over here, there are more limits to protect privacy placed on all tech companies.

If TikTok poses a problem, then both Europe and the U.S. need to consider strong measures to protect us against China’s authoritarian tentacles. But the solution is not to make a law that opens the door to our own government taking away our rights and threatening us with draconian punishments. The solution is to give us even more protection for our privacy rights.

The possibility that the language in the RESTRICT Act could become law is, in my view as an American who knows what it’s like to live in China, a national emergency. Let’s not let our rights be exchanged for repression. Our government representatives need our encouragement to stop and rethink their approach to combating authoritarianism. If they don’t, then we will have already lost the fight.