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Should TikTok be banned?

Yahoo News; photos: TikTok, Getty Images

What’s happening

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill on Wednesday that would force TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the massively popular social media app or risk being banned within the United States.

The bill, which passed by a 352-65 vote, will now head to the Senate where its prospects of passing are unclear. President Biden has said he would sign the legislation if it came to his desk.

Concerns that TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, might pose a national security threat because of its potential ties to the Chinese government have been raised repeatedly in Washington for years. This is the first time, though, that any legislative effort against TikTok has gotten enough bipartisan support to pose a serious threat to its future in the U.S.

“This is a commonsense measure to protect our national security,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who helped lead the campaign to pass the bill.

Lawmakers who backed the bill contend that ByteDance is effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, who could use TikTok to access the private data of the app’s 170 million U.S. users and manipulate content on the platform to undermine American interests.

The politics around a potential TikTok ban are complicated. While strong majorities of both parties voted in favor of the bill in the House, many of the no votes came from some of the most conservative Republicans and most progressive Democrats. Former President Donald Trump, who tried to ban TikTok through executive order before being blocked by federal courts, recently reversed course and came out in opposition to the bill.

Why there’s debate

Supporters of the bill say TikTok will pose a serious threat to individual Americans and the country as a whole as long as it's owned by a company under China's authority. While many say their preference is for ByteDance to divest from TikTok, they argue that Chinese government’s refusal to consider that possibly means there is no choice but to ban the app outright.

Banning TikTok would certainly upset a lot of the app’s massive user base and could have big political implications. But opposition goes beyond the fact that it’s a service a lot of people enjoy using.

Critics of the House bill say it represents an enormous — and possibly unconstitutional — violation of free speech. They also make the case that many of the privacy risks and content manipulation accusations levied at TikTok are true of every other major social media company. Many of these critics have additional concerns that the bill would give the government far too much power to dictate what services Americans can and can’t use based on unproven claims of national security threats.

In their view, the best thing Congress can do is to pass comprehensive legislation that protects the U.S. from the wide array of harms posed by social media, rather than blocking a single platform because of its ownership.

What’s next

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his chamber “will review” the House bill, but there is currently no timeline for when that process might start or how long it could take. Though a number of senators have expressed their support for the bill, its odds of passing through the Senate appear to be on much shakier ground than in the House.

Perspectives

As long as TikTok exists in any form, it will be a tool for the Chinese government

“We all need to divest ourselves of the notion that, even if TikTok has its arms twisted into severing the ByteDance relationship, the platform will be free from influence from China and the Communist Party of China. … No matter what cosmetic result might be the eventual outcome of the current TikTok machinations in Congress, what will surely not happen is TikTok’s transformation into a free and independent platform.” — Aron Solomon, The Hill

Banning TikTok would be an unprecedented suppression of free speech

“Beyond the pragmatic considerations, this bill — should it pass and should TikTok refuse to divest — would result in the largest removal of speech in US history, and by several orders of magnitude. … There is simply no precedent for the sheer quantity of speech involved.” — Paul Matzko, Cato Institute

The best possible outcome is TikTok continues to exist under an American company

“TikTok does not need to be shut down, but it cannot be allowed to remain in Chinese hands.” — Editorial, National Review

Banning TikTok is extreme, but China has refused to accept any other solutions

“TikTok is refusing to even consider [selling] and is instead using its entire addictive arsenal to send impressionable teenagers into a frenzy. And in doing so, the app has proved to lawmakers just how dangerous it really is.” — Kaylee McGhee White, Washington Examiner

None of the reasons for a ban are unique to TikTok

“The reality is that all of these platforms collect data on us and hold huge sway over our hearts and minds; we give our power over to them the minute we switch on our phones and click on the icons. We live in their world, whether it’s TikTok or YouTube or Instagram, and they take over our ability to see the world in a clear-eyed, rational fashion.” — Karishma Vaswani, Bloomberg

The U.S. can’t allow its biggest global rival to manipulate American citizens

“China has blocked U.S. social-media companies that don’t comply with its censorship regime, and the House bill would prevent Beijing from applying its political speech controls and surveillance in the U.S. Despite America’s political divisions, this ought to be a shared goal.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

No government should have the power to decide where we are allowed to communicate

Expanding presidential power to restrict Americans' access to tools for getting and disseminating information—what could go wrong? The measure would obviously be ripe for abuse.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason

We need real protections across all social media, not just a single app

“This bill would fail to protect us from the many threats to our digital privacy posed by criminals, private companies, and foreign actors. Comprehensive data privacy legislation is the solution we need — not bans of certain categories of apps.” — David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to Vox

People grossly overestimate how much we’d really miss TikTok if it went away

“If TikTok does indeed die, the ban may ultimately feel meaningless for millions of online Americans: YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat have all responded to the rise of TikTok by creating their own endlessly scrolling, vertical, algorithmically controlled video feeds.” — Kate Lindsay, Atlantic

Yahoo News; photos: TikTok, Getty Images