Reason Roundup

Bipartisan Bill To Ban TikTok Is Unworkable and Unnecessary

Plus: Justin Amash and Jane Coaston talk about the Libertarian Party, a fatal flaw in anti-vaping studies, and more...


The bill would order Biden to ban TikTok and other apps associated with "countries of concern" or "entities of concern." There are several problems with a bipartisan proposal in Congress to ban TikTok, the popular video-sharing app that originated in China. For one thing, it's technologically infeasible. It's also pointless. Fears about TikTok are overblown, and any real threats can be mitigated by way less drastic measures than banning ByteDance (TikTok's parent company) from doing business here.

The whole thing seems like an exercise in getting publicity rather than an actual attempt at good governance. But let's nonetheless take the bill seriously for a moment, and explore why it's both unnecessary and unworkable. We must start with why people are so afraid of TikTok.

Some suggest that since the app is based in China, it must be a tool of Chinese propaganda. This is probably the silliest fear, since if there were a widespread pro-China or anti-American video campaign circulating on TikTok, it would not fly under the radar. But even if this is going on: so what? There's nothing stopping Americans from offering their own propaganda on the app. Most people on TikTok aren't even engaging with political content in the first place and, even if they were, and did see Chinese propaganda, people aren't zombies who passively absorb and believe everything they see. Besides, Chinese propagandists can set up accounts on any social media platform and spread propaganda (probably much more covertly) that way. They don't need to rely on an app owned by a Chinese company.

The more prevalent fear seems to be that TikTok will be a tool of Chinese surveillance. The company's U.S. operations have strenuously denied this, noting that they store U.S. user data in the U.S. and that China-based employees won't have access to U.S. data, among other measures meant to safeguard user privacy. This means that, theoretically, U.S. user data is not going to the Chinese government, nor is TikTok letting the Chinese government use it to spy on U.S. users.

There may be reason to be skeptical that this never happens. Forbes recently reported that ByteDance's Internal Audit and Risk Control department "planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a U.S. citizen." However, Forbes would not report on the reason for the proposed surveillance, and does not know if it actually came to fruition. So it's hard to say whether this is a real reason for concern. Sure, this could be a super-creepy situation in which the Chinese communist government asked ByteDance to spy on someone for political reasons. But, for all we know, the user in question was a violent criminal and had a court order or a request from U.S. authorities to find their location.

In any event, we needn't be naive about the Chinese government to realize that the risk for ordinary TikTok users is negligible. If you're a U.S.-based Chinese national critical of the Communist Party of China, you might think twice about using TikTok. And the same goes if you're a U.S. government official or a journalist reporting on highly sensitive subjects or something like that. Basically, anyone who has reason to think the Chinese government could want to spy on them might want to exercise caution.

But the idea that the Chinese government would want to surveil the location of random American citizens is silly. Same for the idea that the video viewing habits of your average TikTok user, or whatever other information they provide the app, would be of interest.

Anyone who suggests otherwise just wants to drum up fear and anti-Chinese sentiment. Which is to say: Americans should be more fearful of the propaganda being put out by anti-TikTok crusaders like this bill's sponsors, and of their authoritarian impulses, than of ByteDance using TikTok to target them in nefarious ways.

In enforcing this plan, the U.S. would be engaging in the very sort of behavior we pan countries like China and Russia for doing. They're attempting to capriciously limit citizen access to tools of communication and entertainment and stop law-abiding businesses from operating here, all based on vague anti-foreign sentiment.

It would be different if the U.S. had proof that ByteDance was acting as an arm of the Chinese government, or that random people using TikTok was actually a national security threat. But anti-TikTok politicians never offer such proof or any evidence to this effect. It's all speculation and hypotheticals.

And the bill in question—dubbed Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act (ANTI-SOCIAL CCP) Act—wouldn't just apply to TikTok.

Rather, it would order the president to use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to "block and prohibit all transactions" from social media companies that are "domiciled in, headquartered in" or "organized under the laws of a country of concern." It would also ban social media companies controlled or influenced by "a country of concern" or an "entity of concern."

That's some mighty vague language. It would give the president broad power to prohibit basically any app created by someone in China (including Hong Kong), Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela and any country deemed in the future to be a country of concern, even when the app is not based in one of these countries.

To be clear, enforcing this rule would be nearly impossible. The U.S. government could ban these companies from doing business here, and app stores and the like from making their apps available. But it couldn't stop individuals with a little ingenuity from accessing them entirely. So, the bill could diminish the use of TikTok and other apps deemed a concern but by no means eliminate them.

But that's no consolation. The real damage here is U.S. politicians acting just like the authoritarians they claim to be countering.

"It is troubling that rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok, some members of Congress have decided to push for a politically-motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States," TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told The Hill.


Amash and Coaston talk Libertarian Party politics. In the final episode of the New York Times podcast The Argument, host Jane Coaston (once a registered Libertarian) talks to Justin Amash about why she's changed her party affiliation to Independent and "what happens when your party leaves you behind." Amash and Coaston "share strong opinions about what the Libertarian Party stands for today and discuss how political parties—whether big or small—should amass power," per the Times' description of the episode. You can listen to the whole thing here.


Studies linked diseases to vaping even when subjects had these diseases before they started vaping. The case for restrictions on vaping has rested heavily on the idea that e-cigarettes are just as dangerous as their traditional counterparts. But many of the studies used to make this assertion were fatally flawed, as Jacob Sullum reported:

In recent years, a bunch of studies have reported correlations between nicotine vaping and various smoking-related diseases, seemingly undermining the case for e-cigarettes as a harm-reducing alternative to combusted tobacco. But as a new analysis in the journal Internal and Emergency Medicine notes, those studies paid no attention to the question of whether the diseases were diagnosed before or after the subjects began vaping—a glaring omission when you are trying to figure out whether the associations indicate cause-and-effect relationships.

Sometimes information on the timing of diagnoses was not included in the survey data on which researchers relied. But the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) Survey, which was the basis for some of the studies, does include such information, which the authors conspicuously ignored. In the Internal and Emergency Medicine article, University of Louisville researchers Brad Rodu and Nantaporn Plurphanswat consider those overlooked data and find that the diseases reported by subjects generally predated their first use of vaping products, making a causal interpretation logically impossible.

More here.


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