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Senator Marco Rubio recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would ban the social media app TikTok from operating in the United States. This is long overdue and much needed.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese internet company, which is required by Chinese law to make the app’s data available to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — an app that is collecting troves of data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day.
Rubio is now stepping up to protect Americans from “China’s digital fentanyl,” as FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has termed the app. Rubio’s says his bill, the “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act,” would prohibit and block all transactions from any social media company in, or “under the influence of,” China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, though the act only refers to TikTok. Wisconsin Republican Representatives Mike Gallagher and Illinois Democrat Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
There are two urgent reasons why the government should get on board with Rubio’s approach:
1. National Security
TikTok is a serious threat to our national security. Recently, the depth of the company’s ties with the CCP, has come to light. According to Forbes, LinkedIn profiles reveal that 23 of ByteDance’s directors previously worked for CCP propaganda outlets, and at least 15 ByteDance employees work for them now.
The real danger of these close ties is the potential access of the CCP to U.S. user data. TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew has now admitted that “employees outside the U.S., including China-based employees, can have access to TikTok U.S. user data.” If Chinese TikTok employees can access U.S. data, it’s the equivalent of saying the CCP has access to it.
And there is a lot of data for the CCP to access. TikTok, more so than other apps, aggressively harvests data, both in the range of data it collects and in its methods. “It operates as a very sophisticated surveillance app … pulling everything from search and browsing history, potentially keystroke patterns, biometrics, including face prints, invoice prints,” Carr has said.
And The New York Times has reported how the app can track cellphone users’ locations and collect internet-browsing data — even when users are visiting unrelated websites.
In addition to the security concerns around data, there are also concerns of nefarious influence. The CCP could use TikTok and its algorithms to politically influence the United States, to propagate videos that support CCP-friendly politicians or exacerbate divisions in American society. A hostile power to the United States having potential control of a vast social media network that could be easily weaponized for surveillance and influence operations against us is extremely dangerous.
2. America’s children
The design and content of the app itself is incredibly harmful to our children and their brains. TikTok has now been linked to mental illness, anxiety, depression, attention disorders, and even physical tics, especially in teen girls. The app’s recommendation algorithms are very aggressive, continuously filling a user’s feed with content.
And these algorithms can quickly send children down rabbit holes of sexual or drug-related content. As the New York Post reports, one minor’s account was “bombarded with marketing for strip clubs, promoted paid pornography and videos pushing the user toward OnlyFans.com. … Yet another account was lured into a TikTok space called ‘KinkTok,’ featuring torture devices, chains, whips and such.”
TikTok has also been shown to promote dangerous eating disorder content for girls, contributing to a wave of eating-disorder cases spreading across the country. And a Forbes review of hundreds of recent TikTok livestreams found that “viewers regularly use the comments to urge young girls to perform acts that appear to toe the line of child pornography — rewarding those who oblige with TikTok gifts … It’s ‘the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds.’”
The Chinese know all of this. They’ve recognized these harms to kids and so they don’t allow TikTok to operate the same way inside China. Instead, the Chinese version promotes educational content and limits children’s use to 40 minutes per day with overnight scrolling banned. China protects their children from TikTok’s harms and exports the “digital fentanyl” version to America’s children.
In spite of these clear and pressing threats, President Joe Biden to date has not taken action against the company. Rather he has been trying to reach a deal with TikTok that could allow the parent firm to keep control of the app in the U.S.
All that could change though, as reports reveal the deal has recently stalled, with his administration at odds over whether to force the Chinese owner of TikTok to divest from its U.S. operations.
The threats are increasingly apparent to all. Five states have already banned TikTok from use on government phones and the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a similar prohibition for federal devices last Wednesday.
Time Is Up
TikTok’s time is up. This is not a partisan issue. Biden and the Democrats should follow Krishnamoorthi’s example and get on board with his, Gallagher’s and Rubio’s bipartisan approach to ban TikTok from operating in the United States.
Or at the very least, Biden’s administration should issue an order requiring ByteDance to sell its U.S. TikTok operations to an American company or set it up as a standalone company. Our national security and the health and safety of our children depend on it.