While others have already written similar posts, given my previous position it seems necessary for me to do so as well – the Restrict Act is a no good very bad bill, and having seen the bill I realize that I was wrong to support banning TikTok.

For a while I have been in favor of banning TikTok, if it does not divest its Chinese ownership and modify the software to stop collecting outside user data. TikTok is Chinese spyware. Letting it be installed on most phones, given the data it is collecting, is not something we can or should abide.

Then someone actually proposed a bill, S 686 or the Restrict Act. I was reminded why it is almost never a good idea to ban things. Rather than a narrow bill to allow the banning of TikTok, we got a bill that vastly expands government powers, a Patriot Act for the Internet.

This is why we cannot have nice things. These people clearly cannot be trusted to regulate such matters.

So I’m admitting I was wrong. TikTok is still Chinese spyware, it is still not a good use of your time, you personally should not use it.

If this is how things are, however, then that’s where this ends. Don’t ban TikTok.

TikTok Is Chinese Spyware

TikTok is Chinese Spyware. It can’t read your texts and emails directly, but it can do a lot of other things short of that. If we have the ability to ban TikTok without vastly destroying our civil liberties in general, we should ban TikTok.

Noah Smith agrees.

Spying is the most commonly cited reason for banning TikTok, because it’s the easiest to prove. Tiktok has admitted tracking journalists’ physical movements and sending the data to its Chinese parent company. But physical location is probably only the tip of the iceberg of the data TikTok can collect, which includes faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and pretty much anything you do on your phone. And as Ben Thompson wrote back in 2020, that information basically becomes the property of the Chinese Communist Party.

[From Ben]:

All Chinese Internet companies are compelled by the country’s National Intelligence Law to turn over any and all data that the government demands, and that power is not limited by China’s borders. Moreover, this requisition of data is not subject to warrants or courts, as is the case with U.S. government requests for data from Facebook or any other entity…If anything it would be a something of a surprise were it not[.]

What I do not understand is why Apple and Google haven’t taken care of this for us. If I was running an app store and I found out a popular app was collecting a lot of the data on everyone’s phone and sending it back, I’d have said “either you fix this in 72 hours or you don’t have an app in our store and we’re issuing a warning to everyone to delete it.” Somehow, that did not happen. It still is not happening. I don’t know why.

There are plenty of other places to post and get similar content. TikTok itself would be easy to spin off or sell to preserve its value. I don’t see any serious threat to free speech here.

It turns out that our government is coming around to the position that our kids all putting Chinese spyware on their phones, and watching whatever videos a Chinese company decides to show them on the basis of an opaque algorithm, might actually be a bad idea?

In response, TikTok is exploring how to make this work (Bloomberg link).

If ByteDance unloads TikTok, then this would be a pure win for all involved.

If TikTok is actually banned, in many ways that is far better. Americans are spending really quite a lot of time on the app, in ways I doubt are producing much value in any sense, so I’d love to shake that loose. Would there be fallout?

A plurality actually say they favor the ban, and young people mostly don’t vote.

The ones who would be mad would be really mad. This would hit close to home, they are spending hours a day on these little videos… and it’s gone.

Then again? Short attention spans. Plenty of imitators would be ready to go within a day. By the time the election rolled around everyone would bee on NewVid or something. Anyone who says it was a mistake opens themselves up to obvious attacks.

Seems like a highly credible threat. Game theory says they should divest, quickly. That would be that.

It did not help that the Congressional hearing went, by all reports, maximally badly for TikTok. Or that TikTok is said to have responded by filling some users ‘For You’ pages with Pro-Chew content.

That t-shirt saying we would never use the algorithm as propaganda is answering a lot of questions.

There’s just one little problem. Lawmakers are not our friends.

The Restrict Act

Then, of course, they wrote the actual bill, S 686, and, well, never waste a crisis.


After which follows a very exhaustive list of potential things one might deem a risk.

Here is Vice with more details.

I did a Ctrl-F search for ‘ByteDance’ and ‘TikTok’ in the bill. They appear zero times.

As Reason points out, even ‘social media’ is not mentioned.

‘China’ appears once, on the list of foreign adversaries that can be modified at will.

Accessing anything banned thereby, such as via a VPN, carries a fine of $250k to $1 million, plus criminal penalties of up to 20 years. So does soliciting such access, potentially including instructing someone how to do this.

This act could and would be used to go after individuals and charge them with crimes.

It’s not “disinfo” to say that the Restrict act could be used against individuals.

If your teenage kid gets sad after the Tik Tok ban, and installs a VPN to use their Tik Tok feed anyway, they can be charged with a felony, fined a million dollars, and put in jail for 20 years.

Just read it. And ask a friend who is a lawyer, what they think of it. If they say “Oh wow….” or “Holy…” or “How is this real?!” at any point while reading it, that’s bad.

The government can monitor anything that connects to the internet, ban anything it wants at any time, without any notice, via a new ‘Secretary of Communication’ who would be right at home with those of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love.

None of this is answerable to the public or to Congress.

The term ‘Patriot Act for the internet’ seems highly appropriate.

So, yeah. I want to ban TikTok as Chinese spyware. This bill? Do. Not. Want.

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9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:37 PM

Wouldn't simply banning TikTok constitute a bill of attainder?

The plan I'd aim for would be media regulation, not consumer regulation. 

The right of a "free press" implies that the people who are operating the press are free from tyrannical governments and applying their conscience to their public contribution to the marketplace of ideas.

However, Jack Ma was missing and maybe-dead for a long time, and the people running TikTok are under the same unelected authoritarian genocidal government that Jack Ma was under.

The only way such business leaders can resist pressures to comply with Xi's whims are for a short period of time, up until they are tortured or murdered or have their company stolen from them or whatever, and somehow replaced with anyone more compliant.

I'm not saying the oligarchs in this case are morally bad, just that their moral goodness could not possibly be expressed if it was vetoed by their structurally tyrannical ruler.

Indeed, my respect and care for Jack Ma, as a person, grew when I found out he was handled so brutally by his own leaders. The people who run ByteDance surely know that similar things can happen to them.

So I'd say that there are probably numbers, F, M, W, where it would be good to assess fines of $F per day to any media companies that implement recommendation engines that with more than M% market penetration in the US, who are more than W% owned by (or have anyone in their C-suite or board of directors) who is living without rights or elected leaders.

It is pretty simple: in the free world, the companies that critically rely on freedom to function should be owned and operated by free people.

What I do not understand is why Apple and Google haven’t taken care of this for us.

Or alternatively, why aren't journalists asking either of them for their justification for allowing Tik Tok on their stores?

Why did nobody invite representatives from those companies to the Tik Tok hearings and ask them why they allow the app?

Apple and Google can't protect their smartphone OS from tiktok because the attack surface on a smartphone OS is apparently too large for tiktok as an installed app. That's what the news articles are saying anyway.

As for banning tiktok on their app stores, Google and Apple aren't built to handle the public backlash the way that congress is. If congress bans something, young people can blame the boomer voting bloc or the electoral college or democracy, or even just blame congress, everyone already hates congress but likes their district's congressmember. But if google or apple ban it, then it's just google or apple's fault.

This is an unusually serious matter, since apparently ~50% of gen z uses tiktok every day and the democratic party faces a big backlash if they contribute to a ban. If tiktok is the standard optimization system that "youtube shorts" copy/adapts clips from, then I wouldn't be surprised if lots of people would be very mad about losing access to tiktok, as the few youtube shorts that I've encountered seemed heavily optimized for addiction and outcompeting other media formats like netflix and twitter.

It seems like being able to ban tiktok at any time would give more bargaining power against bytedance, probably achieving objectives without suffering the pain of banning it (unlike a law that bans tiktok, which suffers the pain of banning it without achieving any objectives). 

As for what the bill would facilitate, in addition to counteracting foreign influence, I myself couldn't tell from the language of the bill how broadly it would probably be enforced. The use of legal force is outside my area of expertise.

Apple and Google can't protect their smartphone OS from tiktok because the attack surface on a smartphone OS is apparently too large for tiktok as an installed app.

While an app that runs on Windows is usually able to do whatever it wants, on smartphones an app has to ask for a variety of permissions to do different tasks. 

Apple and Google could basically say: You can install TikTok, but you are not allowed to use any permission to access any data on the OS.

They could say "TikTok used location data to spy on journalists, so TikTok is not allowed access to the location data of their users anymore". 

My bad, I was thinking about an exploit from a couple years ago. News articles are NOT saying this (currently).

What I do not understand is why Apple and Google haven’t taken care of this for us.


Palmer Luckey has this talking point about how China has all the big tech companies (Apple in particular) by the balls. That + Google maybe not wanting to seem monopolistic by banning their competition seems to be a sufficient explanation.

How else were people thinking this ban was going to be able to go into effect? America has a Constitution that defines checks and balances. This legislation is how you do something like "Ban TikTok" without it being immediately shot down in court. 

It does seem very likely that the folks who wrote this bill had ulterior motives.