With strong bipartisan support, the U.S. House voted 352 to 65 to pass HR 7521 this week, a bill that would ban TikTok nationwide if its Chinese owner doesn’t sell the popular video app. The TikTok bill’s future in the U.S. Senate isn’t yet clear, but President Joe Biden has said he would sign it into law if it reaches his desk. 

The speed at which lawmakers have moved to advance a bill with such a significant impact on speech is alarming. It has given many of us — including, seemingly, lawmakers themselves — little time to consider the actual justifications for such a law. In isolation, parts of the argument might sound somewhat reasonable, but lawmakers still need to clear up their confused case for banning TikTok. Before throwing their support behind the TikTok bill, Americans should be able to understand it fully, something that they can start doing by considering these five questions. 

1. Is the TikTok bill about privacy or content?

Something that has made HR 7521 hard to talk about is the inconsistent way its supporters have described the bill’s goals. Is this bill supposed to address data privacy and security concerns? Or is it about the content TikTok serves to its American users? 

From what lawmakers have said, however, it seems clear that this bill is strongly motivated by content on TikTok that they don’t like. When describing the "clear threat" posed by foreign-owned apps, the House report on the bill  cites the ability of adversary countries to "collect vast amounts of data on Americans, conduct espionage campaigns, and push misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda on the American public."

This week, the bill’s Republican sponsor Rep. Mike Gallagher told PBS Newshour that the “broader” of the two concerns TikTok raises is “the potential for this platform to be used for the propaganda purposes of the Chinese Communist Party." On that same program, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, similarly voiced content concerns, claiming that TikTok promotes “drug paraphernalia, oversexualization of teenagers” and “constant content about suicidal ideation.”

2. If the TikTok bill is about privacy, why aren’t lawmakers passing comprehensive privacy laws? 

It is indeed alarming how much information TikTok and other social media platforms suck up from their users, information that is then collected not just by governments but also by private companies and data brokers. This is why the EFF strongly supports comprehensive data privacy legislation, a solution that directly addresses privacy concerns. This is also why it is hard to take lawmakers at their word about their privacy concerns with TikTok, given that Congress has consistently failed to enact comprehensive data privacy legislation and this bill would do little to stop the many other ways adversaries (foreign and domestic) collect, buy, and sell our data. Indeed, the TikTok bill has no specific privacy provisions in it at all.

It has been suggested that what makes TikTok different from other social media companies is how its data can be accessed by a foreign government. Here, too, TikTok is not special. China is not unique in requiring companies in the country to provide information to them upon request. In the United States, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is up for renewal, authorizes the mass collection of communication data. In 2021 alone, the FBI conducted up to 3.4 million warrantless searches through Section 702. The U.S. government can also demand user information from online providers through National Security Letters, which can both require providers to turn over user information and gag them from speaking about it. While the U.S. cannot control what other countries do, if this is a problem lawmakers are sincerely concerned about, they could start by fighting it at home.

3. If the TikTok bill is about content, how will it avoid violating the First Amendment? 

Whether TikTok is banned or sold to new owners, millions of people in the U.S. will no longer be able to get information and communicate with each other as they presently do. Indeed, one of the given reasons to force the sale is so TikTok will serve different content to users, specifically when it comes to Chinese propaganda and misinformation.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution rightly makes it very difficult for the government to force such a change legally. To restrict content, U.S. laws must be the least speech-restrictive way of addressing serious harms. The TikTok bill’s supporters have vaguely suggested that the platform poses national security risks. So far, however, there has been little public justification that the extreme measure of banning TikTok (rather than addressing specific harms) is properly tailored to prevent these risks. And it has been well-established law for almost 60 years that U.S. people have a First Amendment right to receive foreign propaganda. People in the U.S. deserve an explicit explanation of the immediate risks posed by TikTok — something the government will have to do in court if this bill becomes law and is challenged.

4. Is the TikTok bill a ban or something else? 

Some have argued that the TikTok bill is not a ban because it would only ban TikTok if owner ByteDance does not sell the company. However, as we noted in the coalition letter we signed with the American Civil Liberties Union, the government generally cannot “accomplish indirectly what it is barred from doing directly, and a forced sale is the kind of speech punishment that receives exacting scrutiny from the courts.” 

Furthermore, a forced sale based on objections to content acts as a backdoor attempt to control speech. Indeed, one of the very reasons Congress wants a new owner is because it doesn’t like China’s editorial control. And any new ownership will likely bring changes to TikTok. In the case of Twitter, it has been very clear how a change of ownership can affect the editorial policies of a social media company. Private businesses are free to decide what information users see and how they communicate on their platforms, but when the U.S. government wants to do so, it must contend with the First Amendment. 

5. Does the U.S. support the free flow of information as a fundamental democratic principle? 

Until now, the United States has championed the free flow of information around the world as a fundamental democratic principle and called out other nations when they have shut down internet access or banned social media apps and other online communications tools. In doing so, the U.S. has deemed restrictions on the free flow of information to be undemocratic.

In 2021, the U.S. State Department formally condemned a ban on Twitter by the government of Nigeria. “Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather, and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy,” a department spokesperson wrote. “Freedom of expression and access to information both online and offline are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.”

Whether it’s in Nigeria, China, or the United States, we couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, if the TikTok bill becomes law, the U.S. will lose much of its moral authority on this vital principle.