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The TikTok ban is really about who digitally rules America
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The TikTok ban is really about who digitally rules America


  • Congress is moving to ban the social media app with bipartisan support.
  • TikTok’s wild popularity can’t be disentangled from the social and spiritual ills it enhances, from content addiction to what Elon Musk calls the “woke mind virus.”
  • Officials and critics emphasize that banning TikTok helps protect kids and families and blunt China’s digital advantages but obscure Big Tech's more Machiavellian motives in killing off its primary social media rival.
  • The RESTRICT Act, the leading legislation aimed at TikTok, goes far beyond the app, creating a digital Patriot Act that would destroy the Bill of Rights and authorize federal officials to censor and control the entire internet.
  • There are better alternatives, but supporters must act quickly to see them through.

Reading the tea leaves, the U.S. will likely force ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, to divest and sell the popular social media app. Last week CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress about his company, which boasts over 150 million users in the U.S. In an intense, bipartisan hearing, the CEO was grilled about TikTok’s ability to harvest user data and give the CCP access to this information.

To have the legal cover to ban it, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) cosponsored new legislation, Senate Bill 686, titled the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act (the Restrict Act). This bill would give the secretary of commerce sweeping powers to impose huge fines and penalties on any company or person doing business or promoting “foreign adversaries.” More on this in a moment.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R), Congressman from Wisconsin, summed up the feelings of many on Capitol Hill.

"They've actually united Republicans and Democrats out of the concern of allowing the [Chinese Communist Party] to control the most dominant media platform in America.”

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy tweeted that Congress would be moving forward with legislation to counter this dangerous threat.

Whenever there is bipartisan consensus about anything – what some call the “uniparty” – it’s worth pausing to dig into the reasons. After years of doing little to punish China for the COVID pandemic and the fentanyl epidemic, why are lawmakers suddenly concerned with Chinese companies having the same access to our data that American companies and state agencies enjoy?

TikTok by the numbers:

In short, TikTok is an extremely popular app with young people and is filled with silly videos (and much darker content), often showing people dancing to music. It generates billions of dollars of revenue by selling ads and your data to third parties.

If you have or know someone with a tween or a teenager, it’s clear that, no matter how charming the dances or funny the memes, the app, on the whole, is a social and spiritual dumpster fire, promoting various ills from quasi-pornographic content to “trans” propaganda to potentially lethal “challenges” like swallowing tablespoons of cinnamon or, notoriously, Tide Pods, and is particularly terrible for the mental health of young girls.

Ultimately, it’s swarm TV that puts a massive psychological and spiritual emphasis on “limitless self-creation,” a ticket to insanity under digital conditions that encourage and weaponize disembodied collective consciousness. But the question remains why TikTok is in the congressional crosshairs and what big-picture rationale is behind the government’s interest in banning an entire platform.

Killing a rival

You don’t need a deep understanding of the Politburo's opaque inner workings to recognize that ByteDance clearly has ties to the Communist Party of China; in fact, every large company in China does. Nor does anyone contest that TikTok – like Grindr – helps give China access to the metadata of millions of Americans. The question is: How much does that matter – or necessitate the sweeping, post-constitutional powers at the heart of the Restrict Act?

Every day on every app you use, you are being tracked, surveilled, recorded, redirected, and influenced; your data is sold to the highest bidder in the blink of an eye. Google brags that it knows you better than you know yourself. Watching the congressional testimony, it remains unclear why exactly China having access to this data is some existential threat, while Apple and Meta having it is innovative corporate governance.

After all, these kinds of capabilities are less the malicious add-ons of malignant actors and more the inherent features of the digital medium, which is all about the power of automated recordation and recall. Are these congressmen blissfully unaware that our metadata can be purchased at any time by any entity or government, including China, with much more nefarious intentions than trying to sell makeup tutorials?

In that sense, slapping down TikTok implies only a symbolic victory. If China does invade Taiwan and manages to take away most of our access to chip fabrication, that would do immeasurably greater and more efficient harm than Beijing trying to meme American kids into hating the ROC or the USA.

There is truth to the idea that China’s main benefit from TikTok is simply degrading our kids' moral fiber and mental health. The Chinese version of the app, Douyin, promotes science and educational content while limiting use to forty minutes a day. But will the depravity American audiences crave vanish along with TikTok or simply swarm its way into other parts of the American internet? We already know the answer.

Meanwhile, China and the U.S. are already economically enmeshed in this modern globalized village. Chinese companies own outright or large percentages of AMC theaters, the Chicago Stock Exchange, Hilton hotels, and GE, along with thousands of other U.S.-based companies. Disentangling our economies has its advantages, but Congress has not earned Americans’ trust as a good-faith partner in defending citizens’ interests in lessening our dependence on Beijing. To take just one example beyond the COVID and fentanyl scandals, where was Congress when China stole an estimated $200-$600 billion worth of trade secrets over the last two decades?

When you step back and follow the money, it becomes clear. TikTok, through a superior algorithm, was able to beat Silicon Valley to market dominance with a product that conquered our youngest age demographic because it was just better at locking them in as users. Despite pushing Reels and Shorts and spending billions, Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube could not catch up.

So they did what any enterprising monopoly company with a grievance would do: They cashed in the $55 million in lobbying spend in 2021 alone and started putting pressure on Congress. Facebook/Meta hired political consulting firms to denigrate TikTok. It helped orchestrate “concerned parents” to write into local papers about “dangerous” trends on the app and lobby Congress.

It’s important to recognize that a "game of thrones" lurks behind the glossy, sensational, and simplistic portrayal of these intra-tech fights in the media. Not all Big Tech firms are equal or equally tied to the agenda of the federal agencies thirsting for total information awareness and control.

Consider how Facebook faced swift and powerful reprisals for its perceived role among Trump’s enemies in getting him elected in 2016, ranging from federal lawsuits to the “whistleblower” campaign lavished with celebrity-tier media coverage and cleverly and internationally orchestrated to push for more government control over citizens’ use of essential online technologies.

Arguably, Zuckerberg would not even have had to pivot so hard to Meta and the metaverse were the post-Trump reprisal campaign against him not so intense and well targeted. This makes Meta’s interest in taking down TikTok much different from Google's parent company, Alphabet.

Throughout its history, Google has been tied to support from America’s clandestine agencies; today, former CEO Eric Schmidt is hard at work trying to establish himself as the one man best trusted to oversee and design America’s transformation into a digital governance regime. Meta wants to get back into the feds’ good graces; Alphabet wants power over Americans TikTok can only dream of.

But the upshot is the same for companies that see punishing TikTok as just a means to the end of dovetailing their cyber ecosystems with digital governance. All too many “techies” today, from the upper echelons down, are strong advocates of both increased digitization and increased wokeification of American life.

They see innovation as an accelerator for overthrowing our “unjust” legacy constitutional regime and replacing it with an enclosed cyber system where we all must worship what they worship in order to receive the social credit needed to live and work. Which is worse – China chasing Americans around the internet hoping to propagandize them, or woke digital commissars controlling our online speech, association, actions, and funds like we’re fish in an aquarium?

RESTRICT’s cure is far worse than TikTok’s disease

Simply put, the Restrict Act proposed by Congress would allow the government to silence anyone it accuses of working on behalf of foreign adversaries. This might sound reasonable if the country hadn’t seen six years of anyone with a mild critique of the regime being labeled a Russian asset.

Its wording is so vague that it borders on Kafka-esque. Take for instance what activities and transactions to evade the ban could be considered a violation:

This act can potentially be the most invasive and authoritarian law passed in the last hundred years. It empowers a government agency with draconian powers to go after anyone using a VPN to access banned websites with up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. For using a VPN to access a website.

The Mises Caucus adroitly points out the bill would grant the director of national intelligence and the secretary of commerce the ability to designate companies and individuals, including American citizens, as an immediate national security threat for doing business with or promoting a “foreign adversary.” They could be arrested without due process, fined $1 million, imprisoned for 20 years, and have all of their assets seized. It also shields the agency from any FOIA requests. With a stroke of a pen, this agency will have dominion over all digital communications with the explicit power to “enforce any mitigation measure to address any risk.”

Reading through the legislation, there’s also an interesting backdoor regulation for crypto:

In General.—The Secretary, in consultation with the relevant executive department and agency heads, is authorized to and shall take action to identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate, including by negotiating, entering into, or imposing, and enforcing any mitigation measure to address any risk arising from any covered transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States that the Secretary determines—(1) poses an undue or unacceptable risk of—.... catastrophic effects on the security or resilience of the critical infrastructure or digital economy of the United States. (Empahsis added.)

How long before that carve-out is utilized to go after every Bitcoin and crypto organization the government disagrees with? It’s already plain that the feds see Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general as an intolerable obstacle to rolling out the CBDCs needed to digitize the American financial system under central control. The Restrict Act – and the inevitable follow-on legislation to expand and complete the delegation of legislative power on tech to executive-branch agencies whose officials you can’t vote in or out or even know by name – would make Operation Chokepoint 2.0 look amateurish.

Fortunately, there are other options. An alternate bill has been submitted – H.R.1165, or the Data Privacy Act of 2023. This legislation is much more limited in scope and would allow Congress more flexibility in banning specific companies lawmakers view as a national security risk. However, alternatives will be brushed aside unless significant pressure changes the equation. With Speaker McCarthy and the White House signaling their support for the Restrict Act, critics must align and push back hard to ensure another tack is taken.

Even if you think China is the most vicious dictatorship on earth and TikTok has been a blight upon the minds of American teenagers, giving the government this power is a fatal step toward the final end of our constitutionally guaranteed form of government. It would cut whatever precarious ties we still have to the First Amendment – and Second, if you consider that today “arms” in any basic sense must include digital, not just mechanical, ones.

It would give the regime the same open-ended censorship powers China imposes on its subjects. However much we can or should protect children and parry geopolitical rivals, these worthy goals must be pursued without sacrificing our inherent, foundational rights.

In October 2001, when Congress passed the Patriot Act, we were less than two months removed from 9/11. Twenty years later, we’ve seen this bill repeatedly used as a cudgel against the Bill of Rights; at the time, people thought this law was needed to counter a serious national threat. The Restrict Act would grant the legal authority for the censorship of the entire internet and the legal cover to spy on any American.

Every American of every political orientation should vociferously oppose RESTRICT based on what’s in the bill – and what will come next if it is made law. Significant critics across the political spectrum have begun to do so, often for quite different reasons.

But the core reasons to do better before it’s too late should resonate with Americans regardless of their partisan predilections. No less than our identity as Americans hangs in the balance. Without affirmative legal and political steps, such as constitutional amendments that explicitly protect the fundamental digital rights implicit in the First and Second Amendments, dancing around the edges of issues like TikTok won’t be enough to keep America free in the digital age.

Further reading:

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Peter Gietl

Peter Gietl

Managing Editor, Return

Peter Gietl is the managing editor for Return.
@petergietl →