National security concerns colliding with First Amendment rights are nothing new, as anyone old enough to remember the Pentagon Papers case during the Vietnam War era will recall.
In that 1971 case, the U.S. government failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that The New York Times and The Washington Post should be prohibited from publishing the papers, which had been leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and cast a negative light on U.S. involvement in the war.
But the intersection of foreign-owned social media and national security is something new, primarily involving the Chinese social media app TikTok, which claims 100 million U.S. users, many of them young people.
TikTok critics worry that the app is harvesting information about U.S. citizens that can greatly benefit the Communist Chinese government and that the addictive algorithms that make TikTok so “sticky” to users can be used to spread misinformation and promote China’s political agendas.
With that in mind, a bipartisan group of 12 senators, led by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced a bill endorsed by President Biden this week that creates new powers for the federal government to restrict or even ban technology from six nations, including China, designated as U.S. foes.
“It’s safe to assume that if the [Chinese Communist Party] is willing to lie about its spy balloon and cover up the origins of the worst pandemic in 100 years, they’ll lie about using TikTok to spy on American citizens,” Thune told reporters at a Tuesday press conference, as reported by Politico.com and others.
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing and reportedly has close ties to the Chinese government, although TikTok maintains it is independent from government interference and has American partners. Defenders claim TikTok isn’t doing anything much different in terms of data privacy and site features from other social media companies. Others, such as tech journalist Kara Swisher, say it’s a big difference between the motives of for-profit businesses and entities controlled by an adversarial government with documented instances of stealing technology and other secrets.
According to Politico, Thune said the RESTRICT Act would apply to existing hardware, software and mobile apps, as well as future AI tools, fintech, quantum communications and e-commerce products.
The constitutionality related to a restriction or ban on a social media outlet such as TikTok might hinge on whether a ban or restrictions are based on generalized national security concerns or proven, specific instances that document threats to national security.
“If the government wants to ban a way for people in this country to communicate with each other and with other people, it’s going to have to do so within the framework of the First Amendment,” said David Greene, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with Popular Science.
Senate, White House push new bipartisan bill that could ban TikTok - POLITICO
Pivot with Kara Swisher: TikTok, Freedom, and the First Amendment with Jeff Kosseff on Apple Podcasts
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