In the recent debate over restrictions and/or an outright ban of the social media platform TikTok, the relatively tacet agreement and composure between parties did not immediately spell an easy way forward. Fractures within the republican party reared their head during a heated clash on Wednesday.
Senator Josh Hawley moved in for a decisive victory on the issue of TikTok’s potential surveillance by way of unanimous consent to pass his bill to prohibit TikTok from operating on US soil; and prohibit all commercial transactions between US businesses and ByteDance, the parent company, to TikTok which is Chinese owned and operates in China. The precedent for this action, which has seen bipartisan support rarely seen in the recent past, is not only the concern for national security from foreign surveillance and disruption (the issue of spying and data mining was first brought to light under Trump’s administration via an executive order against TikTok); but also as an extension of a previous bill passed into law which banned the use of Tiktok on government devices.
Senator Rand Paul’s objection highlighted his position as a constitutionalist: “There are two main reasons why we might not want to do this. The one would be the First Amendment to the Constitution. Speech is protected whether you like it or not. The second reason would be that the Constitution actually prohibits bills of attainder…”
To clarify, a bill of attainder is in reference to the constitutional right to a trial before a party can be punished for an alleged grievance.
Paul went on to warn the Senate of the precedent being set: “I think we should be aware of those who peddle fear. I think we should be aware of those who use fear to coax Americans to relinquish our liberties…Every accusation of data-gathering that’s been attributed to TikTok could also be attributed to domestic Big Tech companies.”
The latter statement points to proceedings, beginning as early as 2018, against platforms like Facebook, which were also accused of engaging in unauthorized data gathering and breaches of privacy.
In response, Senator Hawley reasserted that the bill is not about constitutional rights but rather protections against foreign surveillance.
“I didn’t realize that the First Amendment contained a right to espionage. The senator from Kentucky mentions the Bill of Rights. I must have missed the right of the Chinese government to spy on Americans in our Bill of Rights…”.
Hawley’s bill is facing opposition in the form of a bipartisan bill as well. Democrat Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator John Thune have introduced the Restrict Act, which would take a lighter approach in having the Commerce Department identify any activities bordering on privacy breaches, data collection, espionage, etc., and regulate activity across the board, with the ability to ban companies that violated any regulations set in place.