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There’s justifiable controversy surrounding TikTok, the social media app. I find much to dislike about TikTok but also much to dislike about the solutions some have proposed, such as a complete ban on the app in the United States. Such proposals would grant the federal executive branch powers that most of us wouldn’t grant to our worst enemy (i.e., they fail the “Munger test”).

Congressional Activity

The proposed RESTRICT Act (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) is a bipartisan effort to eliminate the perceived threats to national security posed by technologies like TikTok. That would include a ban on the app. Proponents of a ban go further than national security concerns, arguing that TikTok represents a threat to the health and productivity of users. However, an outright ban on the app would be a drastic abridgment of free speech rights, and it would limit Americans’ access to a popular platform for creativity and entertainment. In addition, the proposed legislation would authorize intrusions into the privacy of Americans and extend new executive authority into the private sphere, such as tampering with trade and commerce in ways that could facilitate protectionist actions. In fact, so intrusive is the RESTRICT Act that it’s been called a “Patriot Act for the digital age.” From Scott Lincicome and several coauthors at CATO:

“… the proposal—at least as currently written—raises troubling and far‐reaching concerns for the First Amendment, international commerce, technology, privacy, and separation of powers.

Bad Company

TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, and there is understandable concern about the app’s data collection practices and the potential for the Chinese government to access user data for nefarious purposes. The Trump administration cited these concerns when it attempted to ban TikTok in 2020, and while the ban was ultimately blocked by a federal judge, the Biden administration has also expressed concerns about the app’s data security.

TikTok has also been accused of promoting harmful content, including hate speech, misinformation, and sexually explicit material. Critics argue that the app’s algorithm rewards provocative and controversial content, which can lead to the spread of harmful messages and the normalization of inappropriate behavior. Of course, those are largely value judgements, including labels like “provocative”, “inappropriate”, and many interpretations of content as “hate speech”. With narrow exceptions, such content is protected under the First Amendment.

Unlike L. Frank Baum’s Tik-Tok machine in the land of Oz, the TikTok app might not always qualify as a “faithful servant”. There are some well-founded health and performance concerns related to TikTok, however. Some experts have expressed reservations about the effects of the app on attention span. The short-form videos typical of TikTok, and endless scrolling, suggest that the app is designed to be addictive, though I’m not aware of studies that purport to prove its “addictive nature. Of course, it can easily become a time sink for users, but so can almost all social media platforms. Nevertheless, some experts contend that heavy use of TikTok may lead to a decrease in attention span and an increase in distraction, which can have negative implications for productivity, learning, and mental health.

Bad Government

The RESTRICT Act, or a ban on TikTok, would drastically violate free speech rights and limit Americans’ access to a popular platform for creativity and self-expression. TikTok has become a cultural phenomenon, with millions of users creating and sharing content on the app every day. This is particularly true of more youthful individuals, who are less likely to be persuaded by their elders’ claims that the content available on TikTok is “inappropriate”. And they’re right! At the very least, “appropriateness” depends on an individual’s age, and it is generally not an area over which government should have censorship authority, “community standards” arguments notwithstanding. Furthermore, allowing access for children is a responsibility best left in the hands of parents, not government.

Likewise, businesses should be free to operate without undue interference from government. The RESTRICT Act would violate these principles, as it would limit individual choice and potentially harm innovation within the U.S. tech industry.

A less compelling argument against banning TikTok is that it could harm U.S.-China relations and have broader economic consequences. China has already warned that a TikTok ban could prompt retaliation, and such a move could escalate tensions between the two countries. That’s all true to one degree or another, but China has already demonstrated a willingness and intention to harm U.S.-China relations. As for economic repercussions, do business with China at your own risk. According to this piece, U.S. investment in the PRC’s tech industry has fallen by almost 80% since 2018, so the private sector is already taking strong steps to reduce that risk.

Like it or not, however, many software companies are subject to at least partial Chinese jurisdiction. The means the RESTRICT Act would do far more than simply banning TikTok in the U.S. First, it would subject on-line activity to much greater scrutiny. Second, it would threaten users of a variety of information or communications products and services with severe penalties for speech deemed to be “unsafe”. According to Columbia Law Professor Philip Hamburger:

Under the proposed statute, the commerce secretary could therefore take ‘any mitigation measure to address any risk’ arising from the use of the relevant communications products or services, if the secretary determines there is an ‘undue or unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the safety of United States persons.’

We live in an era in which dissenting speech is said to be violence. In recent years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has classified concerned parents and conservative Catholics as violent extremists. So when the TikTok bill authorizes the commerce secretary to mitigate communications risks to ‘national security’ or ‘safety,’ that means she can demand censorship.

A Lighter Touch

The RESTRICT Act is unreasonably broad and intrusive and an outright ban of TikTok is unnecessarily extreme. There are less draconian alternatives, though all may involve some degree of intrusion. For example, TikTok could be compelled to allow users to opt out of certain types of data collection, and to allow independent audits of its data handling practices. TikTok could also be required to store user data within the U.S. or in other countries that have strong data privacy laws. While this option would represent stronger regulation of TikTok, it could also be construed as strengthening the property rights of users.

To address concerns about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company, its U.S. operations could be required to partner with a U.S. company. Perhaps this could satisfied by allowing a U.S. company to acquire a stake in TikTok, or by having TikTok spin off its U.S. operations into a separate company that is majority-owned by a U.S. entity.

Finally, perhaps political or regulatory pressure could persuade TikTok to switch to using open-source software, as Elon Musk has done with Twitter. Then, independent developers would have the ability to audit code and identify security vulnerabilities or suspicious data handling practices. From there, it’s a matter of caveat emptor.

Restrain the Restrictive Impulse

The TikTok debate raises important questions about the role of government in regulating technology and free speech. Rather than impulsively harsh legislation like the RESTRICT Act or an outright ban on TikTok, an enlightened approach would encourage transparency and competition in the tech industry. That, in turn, could help address concerns about data security and promote innovation. Additionally, individuals should take personal responsibility for their use of technology by being mindful of the content they consume and what they reveal about themselves on social media. That includes parental responsibility and supervision of the use of social media by children. Ultimately, the TikTok debate highlights tensions between national security, technological innovation, and individual liberty. and it’s important to find a balance that protects all three.

Note: The first draft of this post was written by ChatGPT, based on an initial prompt and sequential follow-ups. It was intended as an experiment in preparation for a future post on artificial intelligence (AI). While several vestiges of the first draft remain, what appears above bears little resemblance to what ChatGPT produced. There were many deletions, rewrites, and supplements in arriving at the final draft.

My first impression of the ChatGPT output was favorable. It delineated a few of the major issues surrounding a TikTok ban, but later I was struck by its repetition of bland generalities and its lack of information on more recent developments like the RESTRICT Act. The latter shortfall was probably due to my use of ChatGPT 3.5 rather than 4.0. On the whole, the exercise was fascinating, but I will limit my use of AI tools like ChatGPT to investigation of background on certain questions.