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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The resistance to a TikTok ban is growing in Washington

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: TikTok unveils new safety features for kids, and House Republicans take aim at the FTC. First:

The resistance to a TikTok ban is growing in Washington

A growing number of civil liberties and digital rights groups are speaking out against calls to ban TikTok from the United States, mounting fresh resistance to those surging efforts by public officials.

Advocates argue the proposed TikTok crackdowns would violate users’ rights to express themselves online and distract from broader debates about data privacy.

The burgeoning movement stands in sharp contrast to much of the debate in Washington, where critics have pushed for a ban over claims TikTok poses grave security risks due to its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance.

Congress took its biggest step yet toward that goal on Wednesday, with a GOP-led House panel advancing a bill to make it easier for President Biden to ban the app nationwide. 

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued the measure would protect Americans from potential surveillance at the hands of the Chinese government. 

TikTok has testified that it has never and would never share U.S. user data with China. The assurances seemingly have not done much to allay fears on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are forging ahead with calls for aggressive restrictions against the popular video-sharing platform.

Now those efforts are running into new opposition from advocates who argue calls for a ban are misguided at best and unconstitutional at worst. Here’s where they stand:

The move could violate TikTok users’ First Amendment rights

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched an online petition calling lawmakers to drop their proposals to ban TikTok, saying it “would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use the app to express themselves daily.”

A number of prominent civil liberties and digital rights advocates told The Technology 202 that they share the ACLU’s concerns that a ban would infringe on users’ free speech rights. 

“A ban on TikTok … would be like banning a newspaper or TV channel, but worse,” Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told me. 

Krishnan added, “It would shut down a channel of communication that tens of millions of Americans use to share information and ideas every day.”

A number of groups previously spoke out when former president Donald Trump sought to ban TikTok, WeChat and other apps linked to China from the United States. Those efforts were repeatedly struck down in court, with judges voicing concern about their First Amendment implications.

The push detracts from the debate on privacy legislation

Several advocates said that if lawmakers are so concerned that China could seize data collected by TikTok, they should focus on passing federal privacy rules to cover all companies.

On Wednesday, digital rights group Fight for the Future launched a separate #DontBanTikTok campaign online. “Yes, it’s worrying that the Chinese government could access the data that TikTok collects,” the group’s petition reads. “But TikTok’s just one head of the hydra.”

The group said it’s calling on lawmakers to “get serious” instead in their talks around data privacy legislation and other guardrails for the tech industry. “We don’t need more hyperventilating about TikTok: we need strong privacy and transparency laws, and antitrust action to break up the companies getting rich off their data empires,” the group wrote.

Willmary Escoto, U.S. policy analyst at digital rights group Access Now, echoed the sentiment. “If Congress wants to protect human rights online, it should put its energy behind creating and adopting a comprehensive federal data protection package,” Escoto wrote in an email. 

It may undermine America’s record on free expression globally

While U.S. officials have often decried state censorship by Chinese government officials, Krishnan argued that banning TikTok would undermine their position.  

“One concern I have about America going down this path is losing the moral authority to call out foreign states … when they engage in mass surveillance of their citizens or mass censorship,” Krishnan said.

Krishnan said she was “very concerned” about how quickly TikTok bills are advancing on Capitol Hill, and that she was struck by the fact more lawmakers weren’t voicing free speech concerns. 

“I would hope to see more members of Congress stand up for the First Amendment,” she said.

After House Foreign Affairs advanced its bill Wednesday, the committee’s top Democrat issued a statement bashing Republicans for moving too hastily to ban the app. 

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said moving ahead without more due diligence would be “harming our national security and infringing on their freedom of expression and speech.”

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo separately said in an interview published Wednesday that “passing a law to ban a single company is not the way to deal with this issue.” She added, "This is America.”

Our top tabs

European regulators table call on Microsoft-Activision deal

Antitrust enforcers in the European Union extended their deadline for a decision on whether to challenge Microsoft’s $69 billion acquisition of Call of Duty maker Activision, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports.

“The Xbox maker announced the Activision Blizzard deal in January last year to help it compete better with leaders Tencent and Sony but has encountered regulatory hurdles in Europe, Britain and the United States,” according to the report. “It is expected to offer remedies to the EU competition enforcer soon.”

The Federal Trade Commission in December filed a lawsuit to block the deal, taking “its most aggressive actions since Lina Khan became chair to rein in the power of Big Tech,” as my colleagues wrote at the time.

TikTok adds one-hour limit for teen usage but allows for easy bypass

TikTok announced Wednesday that many teenage users will now be limited to 60 minutes of screen time, but the feature can be easily bypassed with a passcode, our colleague Rachel Lerman reports.

Users who have identified themselves as under 18 will begin getting an automatic message when they reach an hour of daily scrolling, the company said, and they’ll have to enter a passcode to dismiss the nudge. The new feature means that kids won’t fully be limited in their TikTok usage, as many users have been known to lie about their age to work around restrictions placed on younger accounts, though TikTok says that such reminders are helpful for those trying to control their screen time.

Screen usage has been a recent focus of lawmakers and advocacy groups concerned about the hold social media has on users, especially children. Social media companies have tried to quell these concerns by adding screen time management features, but many experts say they don’t go far enough.

The move comes as the China-linked social media platform faces unending scrutiny from U.S. regulators over national security concerns. This week, the White House said federal agencies had 30 days to ensure the app is removed from federal devices. Canada said it would also ban the app from government-issued phones.

House GOP leaders demand answers from FTC on Wilson’s departure

Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan on Wednesday pressing her on the looming departure of Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Gus Bilirakis (R.-Fla.) asked Khan to provide documents related to Wilson’s dissent from the agency’s challenge to Meta’s acquisition of VR fitness company Within Unlimited that was withdrawn last week. Concerned about how the FTC will conduct business in a bipartisan manner, they also asked for figures about the number of FTC employees that have resigned, retired or left the agency since 2018.

The agency is poised to have a 3-0 Democratic majority following Wilson’s pending departure which she announced in a Feb. 14 Wall Street Journal op-ed, as well as last year’s departure of fellow Republican commissioner Noah Phillips

“We can confirm receipt of the letter but have no comment,” FTC spokesperson Douglas Farrar told The Technology 202.

Agency scanner

Gina Raimondo Becomes China Player in a Job Where Her Predecessor Used to Nap (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Inside the industry

Waymo Cuts Jobs as Parent Company Alphabet Focuses on AI (Bloomberg)

YouTube child data gathering faces UK scrutiny after complaint (Reuters)

Twitter's new 'violent speech' policy similar to past rules (Associated Press)

Elon Musk to debut his road map for Tesla after a year of struggles (Faiz Siddiqui and Rachel Lerman )

Workforce report

Activision fired staff for using 'strong language' about remote work policy -union (Reuters)


Why an iPhone charging feature is facing surprising blowback (Chris Velazco)


  • Networking hardware company Juniper Networks and data security company Rubrik have joined BSA | The Software Alliance as new members.

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