Tiktok and its threat to national security: are concerns valid?

For months, the U.S. government has fed the American public their concerns regarding TikTok. However, is TikTok truly the formidable foe that they paint it to be?

TikTok is a social media platform owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance that features user-created content in the form of short video clips. Ever since a Chinese policy outlining how the government could forcibly demand companies to turn over private information was discovered by the public, the international community has expressed fears regarding the security of users’ personal information on the platform. 

With over 1 billion users active monthly, it is clear why many are so concerned with the threat that TikTok’s widespread influence may pose to national security. Now, even the U.S. government has taken notice, and politicians are once again letting their cynical mindsets interfere with their distinction between what is right and what is inherently wrong. It is this very reason that leads Americans to fear an oncoming encroachment upon their First Amendment rights, and it should not have to be this way.

Although it may seem intuitive to ban the app before China is able to exploit user information and wreak havoc on the international community,  it is improper to make such a significant decision without having the necessary statistics to back it up. It is important to do as much research as possible before implementing such a drastic measure, as there is a fine line between suppressing free speech and eliminating a viable threat for the very sake of protecting the people. 

Last April, the No TikTok on Government Devices Act was introduced by Republican Senator Josh Hawley and later passed by the Senate in December. The purpose of the act itself was pretty self-explanatory– within 60 days after its enactment, government agencies were forced to develop guidelines regarding the app’s immediate removal and ban from informational technology. 

Fast forward a few months into March, and the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act was introduced by Democratic Senator Mark Warner. As of now, the bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for further review. If passed, it would allow the U.S. government to crack down on apps or other communication services tied to “foreign adversaries.” Specifically, it would give the President the power to take action against any “covered holding” it deems to be a threat to national security. This is not limited to just TikTok– the act targets a large scope of foreign countries that includes more than just China (Hong Kong, Russia, Cuba, etc.), and Americans can expect to lose more than just the popular video-sharing platform they cherish so dearly if the bill successfully pushes through. 

Furthermore, the bill details that its violators would be subject to penalties under the law, leading many to fear that their privilege of using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to direct network traffic and browse the internet securely would be lost. This is where it becomes an infringement upon First Amendment rights– as the government would be actively searching and penalizing violators of the bill, using a VPN could be criminalized as it is considered a way to erase one’s digital footprint. This would encourage the surveillance of citizens as they browse the web, and the government would be breaching individuals’ right to privacy. The restriction of platforms on which the beauty of free speech is so profoundly displayed is the silencing of American voices, and that is an injustice upon the people.

A research paper conducted by the Internet Governance Project providing the first comprehensive analysis of TikTok’s threat to national security reveals key takeaways from its findings, with most of them foreshadowing the detrimental effects that banning TikTok would have on America. Furthermore, the paper debunks numerous arguments utilized by those advocating for TikTok’s removal from the U.S. market– TikTok does not engage in censorship, does not spread propaganda for the Chinese government, and only engages in business operations that expand its economic influence. 

Sure, some may say that playing it safe by banning it off the get-go is the safest approach to ensure that TikTok has zero chance of ever impacting America, either negatively or positively. However, that reasoning has absolutely no basis: those at ByteDance have proven from time and time again that its employees have not engaged in any nefarious behavior in regards to undermining the security of its users’ data. 

For one, user data can only be used for espionage purposes if the user is heavily involved in national security operations and uses the app in a way that exposes sensitive information. As long as no overtly sensitive data is left exposed when using TikTok, the platform would have no possibility of attaining that information.

As of now, numerous international governments have already placed restrictions on TikTok in their respective countries. However, simply following in their footsteps is not a sufficient justification in warranting a nationwide ban. After all, it is the U.S. government’s responsibility to act in the best interest of its citizens– not to blindly follow the powerhouse nations around them. The time to clear up the issue is now, before the controversy continues to be blown out of proportion by advocates and critics alike– though it is the U.S. government’s responsibility to prioritize the safety of its citizens, it is also the U.S. government’s responsibility to uphold its guarantee of free speech and liberty to its constituents.

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