Tick-Tock TikTok: Time’s Up on Online Free Speech?

By: Anonymous

In this day and age where the internet is in wide proliferation, most Americans receive their news from their smartphones, with a large percentage of people receiving their news from social media.[1] The days of opening a newspaper for the daily news are gone, in favor of swipes, reposts, and shares. One of the most popular growing apps in the U.S. for news sharing is TikTok.[2] However, a recent House bill passed on March 13th, 2024 could put the future of the app in the U.S. in jeopardy. Consequently, this could be a huge blow to free speech on the internet and set a dangerous precedent.

The bill is the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act (hereinafter H.R. 7521).[3] H.R. 7521 will “prohibit app stores and internet hosting services from supporting TikTok unless it undergoes a qualified divestment that removes it from ‘Foreign adversary’ control.”[4] The bill is one of many bills proposed by the 118th Congress with the goal of ultimately banning TikTok.[5] The “foreign adversary” in question is China.[6] The impetus for the bill arises out of two main concerns. The first concern is that TikTok collects a large amount of its data from its users and China may use its influence over the Chinese parent company to obtain this data.[7] The second concern is that China may be able to use its influence to pressure TikTok to change its algorithm and push an agenda that favors the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[8] Legislators believe China will be able to do this due to evidence that CCP officials have special credentials to bypass privacy protections on the app.[9] The bill would prohibit app stores and other internet hosting services from holding TikTok on their platform.[10] While the CEO and owner of TikTok, Shou Chew, is Singaporean, TikTok LLC, which controls TikTok, is owned by ByteDance Ltd, a company based and founded in Beijing.[11] This tie to China has been enough to raise concerns for legislators that ByteDance may be controlled or owned by the Chinese government despite evidence to the contrary.[12]

Social media platforms are privately owned and are not covered by the First Amendment’s protection on censorship per se, but this ban still raises some freedom of speech concerns. A good example of the impact that a TikTok ban will have on the spread of news is the ongoing Gaza genocide. Between October 7th, 2023, and the date of publication of this post, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, with many more injured and displaced from their ancestral homes.[14] The plight of the Palestinians worsens every day, and it has been increasingly difficult for journalists to report on the ground amidst fears of their safety. Israeli forces have also killed over 130 journalists since the beginning of the genocide on October 7th and some believe they may be getting targeted.[15] The journalists that have survived have taken to social media to provide live updates daily.[16]

One of the main apps used by these journalists to document life in Gaza under siege has been Instagram, which is controlled by Meta.[17] A report by Human Rights Watch provides evidence that Meta has been censoring content on Palestine on both Instagram and Facebook.[18] There are six key patterns of censorship that they identified, which include “content removals, suspension or deletion of accounts, inability to engage with content, inability to follow or tag accounts, restrictions on the use of features such as Instagram/Facebook Live, and ‘shadow banning.’”[19] This type of censorship makes it difficult to receive reliable information on the ongoing genocide.

Additionally, Meta apps like Instagram have pushed to limit the amount of political content users can see overall.[20] This is especially important given that 2024 is a presidential election year in the U.S. Approximately half of adults in the U.S. receive their news from social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.[21] As voter-eligible citizens look to social media to stay updated on current events, it is important that there are options that are not heavily censored and provide primary sources of news.

While TikTok has faced its share of censorship, banning it could set a precedent that will lead to more restrictions on online free speech in the future.[22] Having options is important for consumers. Without them, it is foreseeable that one narrative can dominate, and voices will be silenced. Especially in times like today where multiple ongoing crises are happening all at once (e.g. Gaza genocide, Congo genocide, etc.), it is all the more important to have multiple outlets from which to receive news.

The U.S. has always prized itself on being a champion of democracy. Part of this pledge is a government that not only encourages free speech, but protects it. H.R. 7521 does the opposite of that. Whether fueled by legitimate national security concerns or fear-mongering xenophobia, one thing is for certain: H.R. 7521 is a blow to free speech. The bill still must be passed by the Senate and signed by the President before it becomes a law, but it is safe to say time may be ticking on TikTok.

[1] Elisha Shearer, More than Eight-In-Ten Americans Get News From Digital Services, Pew Research (Jan. 12, 2021), https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/01/12/more-than-eight-in-ten-americans-get-news-from-digital-devices/ (“More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 60% who say they do so often.”)

[2] Alejando O’Connell-Domenech, Tiktok’s Popularity Among Americans Growing Faster Than Any Other Platform: Pew, TheHill.com, https://thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/mental-health/4440620-tiktok-popularity-among-americans-growing-fastest-pew/#:~:text=But%20the%20number%20of%20TikTok,points%20between%20those%20two%20years  (Jan. 31, 2024) (“But the number of TikTok users in the U.S. is growing rapidly, with the site claiming the largest jump in users between 2021 in 2023 compared to any other social media platform, according to the survey.”)

[3] Congressional Research Service, Restricting TikTok (Part II): Legislative Proposals and Considerations for Congress, CRSReports.org, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/LSB/LSB10942 (last updated Mar. 15, 2024).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 2.

[6] Id. at 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Brian Fung, Analysis: There is Now Some Public Evidence That China Viewed TikTok Data, CNN.com, (June 8, 2023, 10:28 AM) https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/08/tech/tiktok-data-china/index.html.

[9] Id. (“But Yu, who pledged under penalty of perjury that he is telling the truth, alleges he viewed access logs showing that CCP officials — whom Yu described as part of a special ‘committee’ with dedicated physical access to ByteDance’s Beijing offices — used a so-called ‘god credential’ to bypass any privacy protections the company may have otherwise applied to the TikTok data.”)

[10] Id.

[11]Laura He, Wait, Is TikTok Really Chinese?, CNN.com (last updated Mar. 28, 2024, 8:21 AM EDT), https://www.cnn.com/2024/03/18/tech/tiktok-bytedance-china-ownership-intl-hnk/index.html#:~:text=US%20lawmakers%20are%20concerned%20about,content%20displayed%20on%20its%20platform.

[12] Id. (“Chew has admitted that the “golden share” exists. But he said it was for the purpose of internet licensing for the Chinese business. ByteDance said on its website that it’s a common arrangement for companies operating news and information platforms in China and doesn’t affect its operations outside the country.”)

[13] See Susan Frederick, First Amendment at Heart of 2 Supreme Court Social Media Cases, NCSL.org, (Mar. 26, 2024) https://www.ncsl.org/state-legislatures-news/details/first-amendment-at-heart-of-2-supreme-court-social-media (“In Moody v. NetChoice, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the First Amendment protects private speech from government regulation. It ruled that social media platforms are not government actors but are private entities with First Amendment rights, and concluded that their content moderation or editorial judgment are protected speech.”)

[14] Aya Batrawy, Gaza’s Death Toll Now Exceeds 30,000. Here’s Why It’s An Incomplete Count, NPR, (Feb. 29, 2024, 5:18 AM ET), https://www.npr.org/2024/02/29/1234159514/gaza-death-toll-30000-palestinians-israel-hamas-war#:~:text=Aya%20Batrawy-,Gaza’s%20death%20toll%20now%20exceeds%2030%2C000,why%20it’s%20an%20incomplete%20count&text=Mohammed%20Dahman%2FAP-,Palestinians%20pray%20over%20bodies%20of%20people%20killed%20in%20an%20Israeli,Gaza%20Strip%2C%20Nov.%2022.

[15] Id.

[16] Mustafa Hassona, On Instagram, Palestinian Journalists And Digital Creators Documenting Gaza Strikes See Surge In Followers, NBCNews.com, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/instagram-palestinian-journalists-digital-creators-document-gaza-strik-rcna123067 (Nov. 3, 2023, 5:00 AM CDT).

[17] Human Rights Watch, Meta: Systemic Censorship of Palestine Content: Overhaul Flawed Policies; Improve Transparency, https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/12/20/meta-systemic-censorship-palestine-content (Dec. 20, 2023, 11:00PM EST).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Natalie Stechyson, Instagram Is Limiting The Amount Of Political Content You’ll See in Your Feed, Angering Users, CBC News, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/instagram-political-content-1.7154360 (Mar. 25, 2024, 9:46 AM CDT).

[21] Id. (“A 2023 report from the Pew Research Center found that half of the 8,842 U.S. adults polled get their news “at least sometimes” from social media. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram were the top platforms people said they used for reading the news.”).

[22] See A.W. Ohlheiser, Welcome To Tiktok’s Endless Cycle Of Censorship And Mistakes, MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/07/13/1028401/tiktok-censorship-mistakes-glitches-apologies-endless-cycle/ (July 13, 2021) (noting that “In a follow up video, Tyler showed the phrases “I am a neo nazi” and “I am an anti semetic” getting accepted, while “I am a black man” was flagged.”).