A bill introduced in the Senate designed to ban the video-sharing app TikTok would give the Biden administration sweeping authorities to crack down on transactions between people in the US and countries deemed “foreign adversaries” related to information and communication technology.
The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act would authorize the Commerce Secretary “to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes.”
TikTok is not mentioned by name in the bill, but its introduction comes as Congress is looking to ban the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The allegation is that since TikTok is Chinese-owned, it’s obligated to share user data with the Chinese government and can be used as a spying tool, similar to how the FBI and NSA have backdoor access to data from Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and other US tech platforms.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew denied the allegations when he was grilled by Congress last week and said China has not asked the company to share American data. But there is still strong bipartisan support for banning TikTok, and the RESTRICT ACT, which was led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), has 21 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
The White House has also expressed support for the bill. In a statement on March 7, the day the legislation was introduced, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the White House “applauds” the effort. “We look forward to continue working with both Democrats and Republicans on this bill, and urge Congress to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk,” he said.
The RESTRICT ACT would authorize Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to take action against any transaction between a person in the US and a foreign adversary that she determines poses a risk to US national security. The bill names six foreign adversaries: China, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba.
The legislation would allow Raimondo, in coordination with the US Director of National Intelligence, to “designate any foreign government or regime as a foreign adversary.”
A person who violates the act could be fined up to $1 million or punished with up to 20 years in prison. The broad and vague definitions in the legislation caused many to wonder if people could be handed such harsh punishments for using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get around future government censorship that could come as a result of the bill.
A spokesperson for Warner insisted that the legislation wasn’t designed to target individual users and pointed to the language that says someone “must be engaged in ‘sabotage or subversion’ of American communications technology products and services, creating ‘catastrophic effects’ on US critical infrastructure, or ‘interfering in, or altering the result’ of a federal election, in order to be eligible for any kind of criminal penalty.”
But the bill will give the Commerce Secretary the authority to deem what is considered “sabotage or subversion” or any of the other threats listed above. The legislation has grave implications for civil liberties and could be used against any individuals or tech and media companies the Biden administration, or any future administration would want to target.