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Giving Up Freedom for Security? The TikTok Ban vs The 1st Amendment

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June 9, 2024
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Politicians slipped in a TikTok divest-or-ban portion into H.R.815, which was primarily $95.3 billion emergency aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The law was signed by the president in April, 2024, and could mean a ban of TikTok in January 2025, but what does this mean for us? Let's take a look at both sides.

The debate over the TikTok divest-or-ban law has ignited significant controversy, highlighting a tension between concerns for national security and the principles of free speech. With over a billion users worldwide, TikTok has become a global phenomenon, especially among younger demographics. However, its ties to China have raised alarms among various governments, prompting discussions about potential bans. But is banning TikTok a justified measure to protect national security, or does it amount to an unwarranted restriction of free speech? Those who give up freedom for security deserve neither, after all.

National Security Concerns

The primary argument for banning TikTok centers on national security. TikTok is owned by Byte Dance, a Chinese company. Critics argue that this ownership could enable the Chinese government to access user data and influence content, posing a threat to national security. Given China’s stringent data laws, there is concern that the Chinese government could compel Byte Dance to hand over user information, including sensitive data about American users.

Data privacy is a significant aspect of this debate. TikTok collects vast amounts of data, including location, device information, and browsing history. The fear is that this data could be used for espionage or to influence political processes. For instance, during election periods, manipulated content could sway public opinion or spread misinformation. The potential for such interference has led some to compare TikTok’s threat level to that of other Chinese tech giants like Huawei.

Additionally, there is the risk of propaganda. If Byte Dance were influenced by the Chinese government, TikTok could become a tool for disseminating state-approved narratives, subtly influencing global opinions. This fear is not unfounded, given China’s history of controlling and censoring information within its borders.

Critics of all of these concerns say, “why do you care now?” The U.S. government and the American people have known for years that other social media platforms have contained the same level of risk for tampering, but that those companies were selling user data to foreign governments for profit. Some political figures such as Mitt Romney have stated that the real reason for the ban is to control the information it disseminates, stopping it from getting to voters and reducing accountability. 

Free Speech Implications

On the other side of the argument, banning TikTok raises significant free speech concerns. The platform is a vibrant space for creativity, expression, and communication, especially for younger generations. A ban would not only disrupt this creative ecosystem but also set a concerning precedent for government control over the internet. 1st Amendment advocates argue that a TikTok ban infringes on the First Amendment rights of American users. The platform allows individuals to express their opinions, share their talents, and connect with others globally. Restricting access to such a platform could be seen as the government overstepping its bounds, curbing freedom of expression in the digital age.

Moreover, TikTok has become a significant platform for activism and social movements. From climate change awareness to racial justice, users have utilized TikTok to organize, educate, and mobilize. Not to mention those who have used the platform to launch or expand small businesses, or who draw a paycheck from their content. A ban could stifle these efforts, limiting the reach and impact of important social causes and taking needed financial opportunities off the table.

Balancing Security and Freedom

The challenge lies in balancing national security with free speech. Some argue for stricter regulations rather than an outright ban, such as mandating that TikTok store American user data within the United States, under American jurisdiction, (which it mostly does, just not under government control) could alleviate some security concerns. Increased transparency regarding how data is collected, used, and shared could also help build trust.

Another more honest approach could be increased scrutiny and regulation of all social media platforms, not just TikTok. This would address broader issues of data privacy and misinformation without singling out a particular company based on its country of origin, making those platforms significantly better for the user.

Global Implications

The TikTok debate also has significant global implications. An outright ban by the U.S. could lead to retaliatory actions by China, affecting American companies operating in China and potentially sparking a broader tech cold war. This escalation could have far-reaching consequences for global trade and international relations. Other countries may follow suit, leading to a fragmented internet where access to information and platforms is restricted based on national borders. This would undermine the concept of a free and open internet, which has been a cornerstone of the digital age. Ultimately the U.S. and Chinese government get to saber rattle, the companies shift their marketing, and only the people lose.

While legitimate concerns about data privacy and national security exist, it is crucial to consider the broader implications of restricting access to a major platform for expression and communication. Rather than an outright ban, a balanced approach involving stringent regulations and increased transparency may provide a viable solution that addresses security concerns while preserving the freedoms that are fundamental to a democratic society. As this debate continues, it will serve as a critical test of how societies navigate the challenges of digital sovereignty and free expression in an increasingly interconnected world. No one is free unless we are all free, and limits on our freedom to communicate should never be limited by government intrusion.

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