The Proposed RESTRICT Act Could End The Internet And Freedom As We Know It
Opinions on the internet can be misleading. You may have heard a near-universal cheer for the forthcoming federal ban of video-sharing app TikTok. Well, put away the champagne and poppers. The so-called "ban TikTok bill" is a lot more insidious than one may realize.
TikTok is an insanely-popular video sharing site that is available and primarily used as a mobile phone app. It is disliked for a variety of reasons. Users are often overwhelmed by the endless deluge of cringe memes and terrible misinformation that spews from the service. It is also believed that kids find it even more addicting than video games or frosted sugar bombs, and it consumes an immense amount of bandwidth on our networks.
None of those are why the US government wants to ban it. The real "problem" with TikTok is that it is made in China, and our government thinks that it is a security hazard. The government believes that TikTok is harvesting information on millions of Americans for untoward purposes. It is true that TikTok, despite initially claiming otherwise, does send large amounts of data overseas. However, potential risks are unclear.
Ultimately the problem is not with the idea of banning TikTok. The problem comes in with all of the other powers that this bill gives the government. Senate bill 686 is formally known as the "Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology" (RESTRICT) act. The act gives the government ridiculously wide-reaching powers with little oversight. This allows the government to control and censor information and imposes heavy penalties on people that attempt to avoid these powers.
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RESTRICT is led by Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) and the bill is deliberately broad in scope. It is written with the stated intention of protecting American citizens from malicious software and telecommunications products deployed by overseas entities. The bill specifically only applies to technology that is linked to a "foreign adversary," including China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
Unfortunately, due to the vague language in the bill, it could apply to almost any internet connection between a US citizen and those countries. That means you could be breaking the law if you are browsing the web and hit a link to Vkontakte, the "Russian Facebook." Likewise, if you watch TikTok videos after the ban, you could face criminal charges for doing so.
Of particular concern to privacy advocates are the RESTRICT Act's stated laws regarding the use of VPNs. As written, those who use a VPN to circumvent regional blocks on content. They could therefore be subject to as much as a million dollars in fines and up to 20 years in prison—an absolutely incredible penalty for something that could be as harmless as sharing a dumb meme with your friends.
The bill says that the Secretary of Commerce will work with other executive-branch secretaries and directors to "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 is a lot of "any's".
It may be easy to dismiss the bill, but RESTRICT is as broad as the existing Patriot Act. In fact, many online privacy advocates have been drawing parallels between the two. Some even refer to RESTRICT as the "Patriot Act 2.0." It is also worth noting that the bill does not even mention TikTok by name, despite that being the original intention behind its drafting.
Other senators sponsoring the bill include Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Mitt Romney (R-UT). (Thanks to Vice for the list.)