TikTok has been top of mind for many lately, and not just for the latest viral dance craze. Pundits and lawmakers have increasingly scrutinized the social media giant, raising questions about its entanglement with the Chinese government and its impact on American society. Several legislative proposals are under consideration now. It is time for the legislative branch to step up and enact principled and rules-based standards for assessing the legality of social media apps.
TikTok has been banned from devices owned by the federal government over security concerns, and a number of individual state governments have done likewise. And while TikTok dominates the larger conversation about the regulation of social media companies, partly because of its enormous popularity, there are real dangers to restricting the conversation to a single company or a particular nation. Whether considering TikTok’s relationship with a foreign government (in this case, the Chinese Communist Party) or the app’s adverse impact on mental health, TikTok does not stand radically or significantly apart from other social media enterprises.
Discussions about the legislation have focused mainly on political security concerns and the access that Chinese authorities might have to data collected by TikTok. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has consistently denied that CCP officials have access to the private data of American citizens.
But there are legitimate reasons to question the independence and integrity of companies engaged with the CCP, whether they are Chinese-owned or not. We have seen numerous instances of the Chinese government’s influence on industries and companies to censor or adapt practices to the will of the CCP—in film as well as industrial production. TikTok may have closer ties to China than other companies, but a recent report from Georgia Tech’s Internet Governance Project concluded that the Chinese government’s ability to gather data from TikTok is a threat “that applies to all social media, regardless of the provider’s national origin.”
Different legislation currently being proposed in Congress tasks regulation, oversight, and even the power of prohibition to different agencies. The best option is not to target TikTok specifically—which would presumably undermine the legitimacy of such a law altogether anyway—but to develop principled guidelines that apply to any social media or information technology company, regardless of who owns it or where it is based. Some of the proposed legislation does just that.
As we know from numerous other historical and contemporary instances, the legal power to target abuses can, in turn, become the occasion for abuse itself. Consider using the taxing authority of the IRS to target Christian ministries and nonprofits or the use of anti-discrimination regulations to radically expand the field for human and civil rights complaints beyond their original meaning.
While there are legitimate national security concerns related to social media in general, including but not exclusive to TikTok, crucial mental health and social flourishing concerns arise from our national use of such technologies. But again, these problems are not unique to TikTok, which may not even be the greatest offender on this score. Instagram, for instance, may be a much greater driver of teen depression and anxiety relative to other social media channels.
We need a much more serious and sustained national conversation about the role and place of social media in our lives, both individually and publicly. But targeting a particular company or a particular nation, no matter how legitimate concerns about these entities might be, sets a dangerous precedent, one that might draw the scope too narrowly to address today’s needs accurately.
Indeed, we should be cautious about using government power to restrict or prohibit the free speech rights of American citizens. Free speech must be protected. But it is also true that such protection must include the protection of the environment in which speech can be truly free in the first place. We need institutional safeguards as well as civil liberties. Social media is a massively popular industry, which means we should take it seriously as a force for political and social influence as well as for abuse. It is also a robust arena for free expression, and must remain so. Politicians should tread carefully when targeting an app used by more than 130 million Americans.
The Chinese government represents a clear challenge on many fronts: economically, militarily, politically, and more. But the American government’s posture towards China needs to consider not just this bilateral relationship, as complex as it might be and as great a threat as China might represent, but also the broader geopolitical landscape and the situation at home.
Neither TikTok nor the CCP stands alone in that regard. When the American government acts to protect citizens from the harmful influence and security concerns arising from social media, it must work responsibly and in a principled way against all such enemies, foreign and domestic.