It’s clear enough now to say that Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) attempt to force a vote in the U.S. Senate to block the popular social media app TikTok is a sideshow. Today, his grandstanding was curtailed by fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who voted against Hawley’s motion on the grounds that a ban would be unconstitutional and an affront to American values. But there are still remaining efforts in the works in the U.S. political apparatus to ban the app, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.
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These machinations reveal a growing and ugly tendency among American political leaders looking to ring-fence and control technological progress, and expand the surveillance state over U.S. citizens and our allies. CoinDesk readers are likely familiar with “Operation Choke Point 2.0,” a phrase coined by Castle Island Ventures partner Nic Carter to explain a seemingly coordinated effort by the Biden administration, Federal Reserve, U.S. judiciary, elected politicians and unelected financial regulators to force out crypto as we know it.
Of particular concern is the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, introduced by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), which has received bipartisan accolades in the Senate and a statement of support from the administration. The act, if passed, which seems likely amid the anti-TikTok ferment, would give the U.S. Commerce Department power to impose restrictions on essentially any “foreign” technologies that pose national security risks.
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Essentially, the RESTRICT bill gives wide latitude to the U.S. executive branch to survey and restrict “information and communications technologies” developed by “adversarial nations.” If that sounds surreally broad, it’s because it is – the bill cites “desktop,” “mobile” and “web-based” applications by name. So, everything you can do with a computer? Well, yes, if it happens to use “software, hardware or any other product or service integral to telecommunications” developed in China or other hostile nation.
RESTRICT doesn’t call out blockchain specifically, but crypto would surely be covered as everything from landlines to satellites to edge computing is, too.
The legislation could be updated, but as it stands it presents a severe risk to technological development and individual human rights. Virtual privacy networks (VPN), used for web-surfing privacy, could be negatively affected. It could fragment the global development process of tech, including crypto, and essentially move us towards a world where who uses what app is decided based on national borders. That’s at least part of the reason why technologist Balaji Srinivasan called the RESTRICT Act the U.S. version of China’s Great Firewall.
Elsewhere, the Biden administration has opened a review of TikTok, and seems likely to try to force ByteDance to divest itself of the app. On Feb. 24, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries (DATA) Act in the House of Representatives that would enable the president to block transactions associated with the import or export of Americans’ “sensitive data” – also in the name of national security. At the same time, U.S. lawmakers are weighing the renewal of 9/11-era Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which empowers U.S. authorities to force U.S. tech giants (i.e., Google, Meta Platforms and Apple) to spy on non-U.S. citizens’ email, phone and online communications.
Listen, I am not one of the 150 million U.S. users of TikTok – I think almost everything that comes from the app isn’t worth the headspace, except for that flamboyant lawyer who tells watchers not to talk to cops – but I don’t think it should be banned. Especially based on such spurious charges that Sen. Hawley and ex-President Donald Trump tried to advance: that it’s a tool for warrantless espionage by the Chinese Communist Party. No doubt TikTok is not only rotting brains but intentionally misusing or unintentionally mishandling user data.
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I also understand the DATA and RESTRICT acts and other efforts could be used to rein in the well-documented privacy and data abuses performed by the U.S.-based tech giants. At some point the government will have to figure out how to best regulate Big Tech, but there is a right way and a wrong way. Balkanizing the internet through unaccountable executive powers is not the right way. For decades the U.S. government has protected the free flow of information and services on the open internet. We should preserve that, especially in contrast to how U.S. adversaries China and Russia manipulate their local webs.
It’s all the more important that laws like this are not passed – that the U.S. does not become its enemies. Especially because, the alternative – crypto – is getting the boot.