It Is March, So U.S. Lawmakers Are Moving Forward on TikTok Legislation Again

Kalhan Rosenblatt and Kyle Stewart, NBC News:

A bill that would force TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to divest the popular social media company passed a crucial vote Thursday, as the company sought to rally users to its defense with a call to action that flooded some congressional offices with phone calls.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously to pass the bill.

On Thursday, TikTok sent push notifications to some of its users to encourage them to call their representatives and ask them to vote against the bill. It displayed text that read “Stop a TikTok shutdown” in big, white letters before urging users to “speak up now.”

Apparently, representatives did not much appreciate having a bunch of people decades younger calling their offices and expressing their opinion on this legislation, in a manner not dissimilar from campaigns by Airbnb and Uber.

The introduction of this legislation makes no subtle statements in specifically targeting ByteDance and TikTok, and the platform’s data collection practices and opaque algorithmic feed. However, the bill (PDF) itself appears to apply more broadly to large internet companies — excluding travel and product review websites, for some reason — operated by a “foreign adversary country”.1

Even so, this proposal has many of the same problems as the last time I wrote about a TikTok ban about a year ago. Instead of attempting to protect users’ private data generally, it is trying to wall off select countries and, therefore, is subject to the same caveats as that recent Executive Order. Also, U.S. lawmakers love to paint TikTok’s recommendation engine as some kind of Chinese mind control experiment, but this should not be interpreted as an objection to political influence in social media feeds more generally. After all, U.S. social media companies have eagerly adopted customized feeds worldwide, driven by opaque American systems. Obviously, the U.S. is happier projecting its own power instead of China, but it would be a mistake to assume lawmakers are outraged by the idea of foreign influence as a concept.

During tonight’s State of the Union address, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was a priority to “pass bipartisan privacy legislation to protect our children online”. It is unclear what this is referencing.

  1. Unfortunately, there is not a cool forced acronym in the title:

    This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act’’.

    Or “PAFACA” for short, I suppose. ↥︎