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Banning TikTok was supposed to be a slam dunk.

In a Washington that is more divided than ever, one of the few sources of agreement is that TikTok, the world’s single most popular app, is bad. Very bad. So bad, in fact, that it should be banned. The Chinese short-video app recently had its day in front of Congress, where members of both parties were united in heaping abuse on its hapless Singaporean CEO Shou Zi Chew. TikTok should be doomed.

And yet, the process of banning it is hitting a big stumbling block: Hapless lawmaking. Republican Congressman chasing for a “win” against Big Tech have instead embarrassed themselves and exposed their base to long-term tyranny at the hands of the U.S. administrative state.

Banning TikTok ought to be simple, so naturally, it’s anything but. Instead, Congress is on the precipice of “stopping” TikTok by granting vague, sweeping regulatory authority to yet another branch of the federal government. This time, instead of the FBI, CIA, or DHS, Americans will learn to fear the omnipotent powers of the Department of Commerce.

The bill in question is called the “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act,” or as it is mercifully abbreviated, the “RESTRICT Act.” The purpose of the RESTRICT Act is, essentially, to allow the Secretary of Commerce to blacklist any tech product, service, or company linked to a “national adversary” that the Secretary considers a threat. For anything banned under the act, a whole universe of “transactions” with them become illegal, and subject to harsh penalties.

Even the press release from Senators Mark Warner and John Thune bragging about the bill’s introduction hints at its underlying problems:

The RESTRICT Act establishes a risk-based process, tailored to the rapidly changing technology and threat environment, by directing the Department of Commerce to identify and mitigate foreign threats to information and communications technology products and services.

What’s a foreign threat? How do you mitigate it? How broad is “information and communications technology products and services?” The answer, when you dig into the details, is basically “whatever the Secretary of Commerce thinks they are.”

As Tucker Carlson highlighted on his program last week, while the RESTRICT Act is pitched as protecting Americans, it will actually make online censorship easier. It’s just that this censorship will be coming from Washington instead of Beijing.

After Carlson’s segment Monday night, more criticism came from a viral post by Greg Price of the State Freedom Caucus Network:

In hindsight, any time the Biden Administration says that it’s “very in favor” of a bill, it’s probably a bad sign.

Much of the hostile reaction has pointed toward the extreme penalties available if a person evades or undermines any “mitigation measures” taken by the Commerce Secretary. If the U.S. bans TikTok, but you use a VPN to access it anyway, then the law’s text at least implies you could be sent to prison for 20 years.

Sen. Warner’s office has put out a statement defending the bill, saying that, essentially, it’s only aimed at major actors and isn’t intended to target regular Americans just for using a VPN.

Warner is probably telling the truth. But so what? He won’t be the one enforcing the law. The executive branch will be. And if the text of the law technically allows for targeting individual American citizens for their web browsing habits, then eventually it will be used for that.

Incredibly enough, the bill might be even worse than Tucker and Price have let on. For instance, the bill empowers the Commerce Secretary to target any foreign company or product that poses “undue or unacceptable risk to… the safety of United States persons.”

Safety? Safety? The very word should send a chill down the spine of any American with the slightest appreciation for liberty in his breast. The pretense that “safety” means security from immediate physical harm is long gone. As Revolver laid out a whole year ago, it is well-established that something is “unsafe” if anything about it upsets powerful political actors:

YouTube calls its content moderation division YouTube Trust and Safety; Twitter’s moderation advisory group is the Twitter Trust and Safety Council; the World Economic Forum’s initiative to increase digital censorship is titled Advancing Global Digital Content Safety; in the U.K., Boris Johnson’s new bill to combat “disinformation and misinformation” online is called the Online Safety Bill. When Apple banned Parler after January 6, it was to stop “threats to people’s safety.” When Amazon followed behind and kicked Parler off Amazon Web Services, it was because the company “poses a very real risk to public safety.”

Read the rest: Beware: Anti-Big Tech Legislation Has a Free-Speech Poison Pill

Now, Republicans are poised to let the Biden Administration ban whole websites, companies, and products using this ultra-elastic concept of what “safety” is. It’s not impossible to imagine that, one day, the Commerce Secretary will be blocking foreign companies simply for not being woke enough, and thereby imperiling “safety.”

Even when the bill is being more explicit, it is actually very elastic. The bill, for example, encourages the Commerce Department to crush any entity that poses a threat to “critical infrastructure.” What is that? The definition used is, explicitly, the same one used in the Patriot Act, which reads as follows:

… systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.

That definition is already sufficiently broad that at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an agency within DHS, officials are claiming the right to police online disinformation as an assault on America’s critical “cognitive infrastructure.” How long before a bill created to combat a Chinese video app instead becomes another catch-all tool for attacking “disinformation?”

How did this happen? Was it treachery, a calculated attempt to use a hot-button issue for a long-term power grab? No doubt for some, but for far more people the most likely culprit is simply stupidity. Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed he didn’t know the contents of the RESIST Act, and thought he opposed it, when in fact he is currently among the bill’s co-sponsors.

Republicans, mindlessly seeking a big win against China and tech, now that both are popular punching bags, nearly sleepwalked into passing a disastrous law. The RESTRICT Act is a classic D.C. ploy. Savvy operators, exploiting the right’s well-intentioned desire to combat China, offered them a temporary victory to lure them into a permanent long-term calamity. 

The RESTRICT Act is bad, a disaster-in-waiting, a Patriot Act updated for Generation Z. But it’s not just a matter of Congress writing up a flawed bill. Any bill that takes out TikTok actually is going to be dangerous to American freedom an well-being. Why? Because, by its very nature, banning TikTok means increasing the power of the U.S. government, and that means giving more power to those most hostile to the American people and their freedoms.

Take a step back for a moment and think about the totality of the situation. Why, exactly, is the GOP so fixated on banning TikTok specifically? The two common justifications are:

  1. To prevent espionage and protect American citizens from having huge amounts of private data vacuumed up by Beijing.
  2. To prevent China from promoting corrosive social poisons such as transgenderism, or censor topics opposed by the CCP.

Let’s consider point one first. TikTok is genuinely bad, even compared to most apps: It has malware capabilities, it keeps more detailed device identities, it does location tracking of individuals, it used to snoop users’ clipboards, and so on. At the same time, though, TikTok isn’t that special as a hazard for America. TikTok is receiving such a monomaniacal focus because, as a major social media app, it’s easy to understand. Yet TikTok is far from the only way China can access American data. Amazon’s best-selling Internet router is made by TP-Link, based out of Hong Kong and Shenzhen.  Those routers have been caught with backdoor vulnerabilities. Even after years of crackdowns from the FCC, U.S. networks are still riddled with equipment from Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese firms.

A U.S. government official who spoke to Revolver also emphasized that TikTok simply sits at the top of a growing Chinese tech leviathan that will be harder and harder for America to ignore.

“Banning TikTok is going to give us the fake idea that we’ve done something about the Chinese tech threat. The real threat of Chinese tech is that they are way more focused on real-world manufacturing, logistics, and medical applications than our own is. China is 50% of the world market for industrial robots. It has 100 times as many 5G private networks as the rest of the world combined, and has the most advanced battery industry. It also has lots of tech supply chains sewn up. They increasingly export high-quality finished goods to the world and we sell them soybeans to feed to pigs. Chinese tech runs our ports. Chinese tech is in all our electrical grid materials.”

The obsession with TikTok, then, is doubly damning. Banning TikTok is a belated attempt to “fight” China after allowing it to build a huge competitive edge in all sorts of high-tech industries, and on top of that, the very fact U.S. lawmakers are so fascinated by TikTok reflects that loss of technological prowess. For American lawmakers, and many Americans more generally, “tech” really is just social media and smartphone apps, not the vastly larger world of networks and circuits and batteries and so forth that actually makes the digital age hum.

Now consider the second argument for banning TikTok mentioned above — that ByteDance might censor Americans or promote destructive cultural trends. This point doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny at all. Is TikTok promoting wokeness at Beijing’s behest? Maybe, though as we recently noted, China seems to barely understand what wokeness is; it’s hardly well-positioned to promote and exploit it in coherent way.

But either way, there’s a glaring red flag here: What company benefits most from a TikTok ban? Google. And you know what company definitely promotes wokeness online? Google.

Google-owned YouTube deplatformed President Trump after January 6. Google tries to strangle dissident websites by cutting them off from its AdSense platform. Google personnel schemed to drive up voter turnout among blue-leaning groups in 2016, and sent devastated internal emails when Trump won anyway. Google fired James Damore for suggesting that men and women are different.

Or, to put it another way: What company does more, day to day, to curtail the basic freedoms you could once take for granted as an American citizen? Is it ByteDance, or Google? What company is more likely to seriously impact a U.S. election, ByteDance or Google? What company is more likely to be more committed to pushing whatever America’s next woke fad is, ByteDance or Google?And five years from now, which course of action is more likely to have made you less free: If Congress fails to ban TikTok at all, or if Congress bans it by passing the RESTRICT Act? You already know the answer to these questions.

And so does Donald Trump:

What’s the message here? In one line: Don’t be a cheap date!

Is TikTok a danger to America? Sure. But it’s not even close to the greatest danger. The greatest danger to the well-being and freedom of ordinary Americans remains, as always, the rulers of America’s domestic regime. And this regime’s chief allies aren’t at far-off foreign tech firms. They’re at America’s own very own tech giants. For anyone who cares about the actual liberty of Americans, there is no substitute for confronting those giants head-on. And as long as they keep substituting foreign enemies for the ones we have right here, they will keep setting themselves up for embarrassment and failure.


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