What a TikTok ban would mean for America's defense of an open Internet

For decades, the United States has proclaimed itself a champion of an open internet, arguing that the web should be largely unregulated and that digital data should flow around the world unimpeded by borders. The government has opposed Internet censorship abroad and has even funded software that allows people in autocratic states to bypass restrictions on online content.

Now that reputation could take a hit.

The House indicated Wednesday that it will again try to push legislation to force the sale of TikTok by its Chinese owner, ByteDance, or institute a first-of-its-kind ban on the app in the United States, this time including it in a legislative package that should be considered with the help of Israel and Ukraine. The package's language is similar to a standalone measure passed by the House last month with bipartisan support, the most significant step yet by Congress to force the sale of a foreign-owned app the size of TikTok. But it would extend the deadline for ByteDance to sell the app.

Digital rights groups and others around the world have taken notice and raised the question of how the moves against TikTok contradict U.S. arguments for an open internet.

A Russian opposition blogger, Aleksandr Gorbunov, posted on social media last month that Russia could use the move to shut down services such as YouTube. And digital rights advocates globally express fears of a ripple effect, with the United States providing cover for authoritarians who want to censor the Internet.

In March, the Chinese government, which controls its country's internet, said America has “one way of saying and doing things about the United States and another way of saying and doing things about other countries,” citing the TikTok legislation .

By targeting TikTok – a social media platform with 170 million US users, many of whom share dance moves, express opinions on politics and sell merchandise – the US could undermine its decades-long efforts to promote a free and open internet governed by international organizations, not individual countries, digital rights advocates said. In recent years the web has fragmented as authoritarian governments in China and Russia increasingly encroach on their citizens' Internet access.

“It would diminish the United States' position in promoting Internet freedom,” said Juan Carlos Lara, executive director of Derechos Digitales, a Latin American digital rights group based in Chile. “It would certainly not strengthen its case for promoting of a free, secure, stable and interoperable Internet”.

America's vision of an open Internet dates back to the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton said the Internet should be a “global free trade zone.” Administrations, including the Biden White House, have made deals to keep data flowing between the United States and Europe. And the State Department condemned censorship, including restrictions by Nigeria and Pakistan on access to Twitter, now known as X.

Now, fueled by concerns that TikTok could send data to the Chinese government or serve as a conduit for Beijing's propaganda, legislation passed by the House last month would require ByteDance to sell TikTok to a buyer who satisfies the U.S. government within six months . If the company doesn't find a buyer, app stores must stop offering the app for download and web hosting companies would not be able to host TikTok.

The House bill's passage in March, currently before the Senate, sparked global angst.

Gorbunov, a Russian blogger who goes by the pen name Stalin_Gulag, wrote on the social media service Telegram in March that a TikTok ban could lead to further censorship in his country.

“I don't think the obvious thing needs to be stated out loud, that when Russia blocks YouTube, they will justify it precisely with this decision of the United States,” Gorbunov said.

Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer who founded the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Center, said the Indian government would also use the U.S. ban to justify further crackdowns. She has already committed to shutting down the internet, she said, and banned TikTok in 2020 due to border conflicts with China.

“This gives them a good reason to find confidence in their past actions, but also encourages them to take similar actions in the future,” he said in an interview.

Derechos Digitales' Lara noted that countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua have already passed laws giving the government more control over online content. She said that greater government control of the Internet is an “attractive idea” that is “really likely to materialize if something like this is seen in places like the United States.”

A forced sale or ban on TikTok could also make it harder for the U.S. government to ask other countries to embrace an internet governed by international organizations, digital rights experts said.

China in particular has built a system of Internet censorship, arguing that individual countries should have more power to set the rules of the web. Beijing blocks access to products made by American tech giants, including Google's search engine, Facebook and Instagram.

Other countries have followed Beijing's lead. Russia blocks online content. India and Türkiye have adopted measures allowing them to request the removal of social media posts.

Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that if the TikTok measure became law, “hypocrisy would be inevitable and the dividends for China would be enormous.” The ACLU was one of the most prominent groups opposing the TikTok legislation.

Any ban or sale of TikTok in the United States would require officials to explain why the measure was different from other countries' efforts to limit the flow of digital data within their borders, said Peter Harrell, previously a senior director of the Council of national security for the international economy and competitiveness in the Biden Administration. The United States has pushed for data to be able to flow unhindered between countries.

“I support action on TikTok here, but we will have to scramble to catch up on the diplomatic front,” Harrell said.

However, other supporters of the legislation have rejected the idea that action against TikTok would undermine U.S. Internet policy.

An aide to the Chinese Communist Party's House Select Committee, who was not authorized to discuss the legislation publicly, argued that the measure would benefit internet freedom by reducing the risk of China's influence on TikTok.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said the United States “remains committed to an open internet.”

“There is no tension between this commitment and our responsibility to safeguard our national security by preventing specific threats posed by certain adversaries from putting Americans' personal information at risk and manipulating Americans' speech,” the spokesperson added .

Anton Troyanovski contributed a report from Berlin, e Meaghan Tobin from Taipei, Taiwan.

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