With the US on the verge of passing the RESTRICT Act, which would allow it to ban TikTok, experts are warning it is “insanely broad.”
The US and its allies have grown increasingly worried about the security and privacy threat TikTok poses. US lawmakers are working to pass the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats Act, which would allow an administration to ban foreign services that are deemed a security threat.
Legal experts are warning that the legislation is so broad it threatens the First Amendment and could be used to ban almost any service, app, or platform originating outside the US, according to Motherboard.
“The RESTRICT Act is a concerning distraction with insanely broad language that raises serious human and civil rights concerns,” said Willmary Escoto, U.S. policy analyst for digital rights organization Access Now.
“This bill certainly is troubling in that it would grant a great amount of power to the executive branch,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, researcher scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “That should be unsettling in any context: recent examples around the world, from Israel to China, are showing us the risks that arise from upsetting checks and balances to favor executive power.”
“It absolutely does implicate those free speech rights for Congress to give the President the power to take ‘appropriate’ action—up to and including banning—against a particular ICTS in the name of national security or Americans’ security and safety. (Even if you trust Joe Biden with this power, would you trust Donald Trump — who tried to ban TikTok as well as WeChat while in office — with it?),” she added.
VPN providers are a perfect example of the kind of service that could be banned using the RESTRICT Act. Many VPNs, including the excellent Mullvad, are developed by foreign companies. Meanwhile, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have made no secret of their desire to undermine encryption in the name of security.
It’s entirely possible that US intelligence and law enforcement agencies could prevail upon an administration to ban all foreign VPNs, forcing Americans to only use domestic options that are legally required to cooperate with efforts to surveil individuals.
“The RESTRICT Act could lead to apps and other ICT services with connections to certain foreign countries being banned in the United States. Any bill that would allow the US government to ban an online service that facilitates Americans’ speech raises serious First Amendment concerns,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project, told Motherboard. “In addition, while bills like the RESTRICT Act may be motivated by legitimate privacy concerns, banning ICT services with connections to foreign countries would not necessarily help protect Americans’ privacy. Those countries may still obtain data through other means, like by purchasing it from private data brokers.”
It remains to be seen if the RESTRICT Act will pass. Even if it does, it may be reworked to address the above concerns. If not, however, it could ultimately lead to a significant loss of the privacy and online security that Americans currently enjoy.