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Should the U.S. ban TikTok?

American flag displayed on a laptop screen and TikTok logo displayed on a phone screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Warsaw, Poland on March 14, 2024. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
American flag displayed on a laptop screen and TikTok logo displayed on a phone screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Warsaw, Poland on March 14, 2024. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The House passed a bill that could force the sale of TikTok, or ban the app altogether.

But is targeting a single social media platform the best way to protect Americans from espionage and covert influence campaigns?

Today, On Point: Should the U.S. ban TikTok?


Jake Auchincloss, Democratic U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. Co-sponsor of bill that wouldforce a sale or possibly ban TikTok in the U.S.

Emily Baker-White, senior reporter covering TikTok for Forbes.

Jim Lewis, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Also Featured

Chloe Sexton, owner of BluffCakes Bakery in Memphis, TN.


Part I

Astro_alexandra: Not enough people are talking about this. They’re trying to ban TikTok tomorrow. And this time, it’s different.

mrgriffis: Do you mean to tell me we have 535 Congress members and they cannot agree on nothing, besides banning TikTok? Ahh!

The_indomitable_blackman: We are actually out here living one of the novels that we read about of a dystopia, we’re living it. Do y’all see? We’re living it. Like, it’s Fahrenheit 451. Literally.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: TikTokers having their say about Congress contemplating a possible U.S. ban on TikTok.

Last week in the House, an overwhelming bipartisan majority — 352 to 65 — passed a bill targeting TikTok. The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act proposes to force ownership of TikTok away from its Chinese parent company ByteDance. Or “prohibit” it from being used in the United States, and TikTok’s more than 170 million American users. The bill is now on its way to the Senate.

Now, this could be landmark legislation, not only because of how popular TikTok is in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, and more broadly, it could be one of the most significant indications yet of how the United States intends to compete, protect itself, and maintain the nation’s cherished civil rights in the digital age.

So let’s start today with Massachusetts Representative Jake Auchincloss, he co-sponsored that bill, and he joins us now. Congressman, welcome to On Point.

JAKE AUCHINCLOSS: Good to be on. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell me, what do you think the most important reason is for the Senate to take up the bill? At this point in time, I don’t see the Senate expressing any urgency to take up the bill.

AUCHINCLOSS: The Senate is rarely in a hurry. The most important reason for them to act with a sense of urgency is to protect youth mental health. The most important reason to force TikTok to answer to Congress, as opposed to the Chinese Communist Party, is that it is the first step in comprehensive social media regulation.

Families are suffering under the greed of the social media corporations, whether they’re Meta, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Discord, Twitch, Snap, they all for the last decade have had the same business model. And that business model is to monetize the attention spans of our youth, and they sell those attention spans off to the highest advertising bidder.

And to make that business model work, they have to keep kids hooked on their screens. And that screen time is eating into family time. And it’s making Gen Z miserable. And no, that’s not, one generation complaining about the other generation, which is an age-old trope. There is strong data that indicates that since about 2012, when our era of ubiquitous iPhones plus social media apps really began, youth mental health has plummeted.

A majority now, Meghna, of teen girls say they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness. That’s up radically since 2011.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman, I just want to jump in here because you will get no argument from me on that. It’s clear that since 2010, especially, there has been a dramatic and downward change in the mental health of America’s young people, which is actually, we’ve done shows on this before. And actually, on Monday, we’re going to be doing a show about the increasing number of parents who are saying no to social media for their children.

But I wonder though, if that’s the primary reason, why do the words mental health never appear a single time in the bill? The first words in the bill are to protect the national security of the United States. Why is there no mention of mental health in the proposed legislation?

AUCHINCLOSS: This bill is the first of what I think are at least three steps to doing comprehensive social media regulation to support youth mental health.

The first is making sure all these platforms follow U.S. law. We obviously can’t do comprehensive regulation if it doesn’t apply to the most popular social media platform. That doesn’t make any sense. If anything, that just gives an advantage to TikTok. So first is everyone plays by the same rules. Second is Congress should actually pass some good rules, which big tech has smothered over the last 10 years. And the first one I would say is we have to raise the age of internet adulthood from 13 to 16. Back in the 1990s, Congress decided that at the age of 13, an individual was able to transact as though they were an adult online.

Maybe that was okay in the 1990s, when you had recipe blogs out there as the most popular sites. That’s no longer the case. And when I tell parents in my district that at the age of 13, their child is an adult online, they can’t even believe that’s true.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman, with all due respect, there’s no age mention in the bill either.

All the things you’re mentioning so far, while absolutely essential to creating a safe, healthy and also free space for young people online, they’re not in this bill. So I’m trying to understand why the bill aims first. In section one, subsection two, the first words are prohibition of foreign adversary-controlled applications.

Prohibition is the first line in this legislation on TikTok.

AUCHINCLOSS: But again, we cannot do comprehensive social media regulation if the most popular social media platform doesn’t answer to U.S. law. So step one is this bill. Make sure the most popular social media platform answers to the U.S. law. Step two is raise the age of internet adulthood. Step three is amend Section 230 and put in place comprehensive social media guardrails the same way we did with TV, print, radio, et cetera to demand that these platforms have accountability for the toxicity that they platform and to give them a duty of care.

But steps two and three don’t work if TikTok answers to Xi Jinping as opposed to Congress.


AUCHINCLOSS: Now, we can go into the reasons why having the CCP control TikTok is pernicious all on its own. And I certainly believe that as well, but it’s actually secondary to me. To the primary driver of this bill, which is we have got to get serious about the social media corporations productizing and attention fracking our youth.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So now this makes more sense. But then that leads me to the question, of as you heard the little snippet of the probably zillions of TikToks now that are out there. And also, even beyond TikTok, just young people in general who are users of the platform, not only young people, actually, we’ll be hearing later from a businesswoman who says she can’t survive without it.

But so your point is well taken about bringing TikTok under the rule of U.S. law. And that’s actually what the second section of the bill is about, to force a sale of TikTok to another entity that’s not considered a foreign adversary of the United States. That’s not an unusual request.

Governments do that all the time. But I wonder then, why is the prohibition section in there at all? This is what’s gotten so many people upset, a hundred and plus million Americans, that there’s even the possibility that a ban could take place if this bill passes.

AUCHINCLOSS: Need to have leverage to force the sale.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more.

AUCHINCLOSS: If we’re going to compel a sale to a to a U.S. domiciled company or to a organization that obeys U.S. law, there needs to be leverage to force it. And so saying either sell or it’s banned is the leverage necessary. And I think it says something about the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions and their control and manipulation of this algorithm.

That they are so reluctant to even consider that possibility. The control that the Chinese Communist Party has over TikTok is unambiguous. Under Chinese law, any Chinese company has to grant supreme access to all data and to any algorithms that control that data upon request of the politburo.

I don’t know why the United States would ever cede that kind of control to our chief adversary over the most influential media company in the world. That would, that is negligence. We would never have allowed CBS, ABC, NBC to be owned by the Soviet Union during the 1960s.

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s hypothesize for a second Congressman, if you will, because let’s say, given the popularity of this bill amongst members of the House, if the Senate ever does take it up.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens. We also, let’s say it passes Senate. We know that President Biden is quite critical of China. Who knows if he would sign it or not, but let’s just theorize for a second that it goes all the way.

AUCHINCLOSS: He would sign it. He said he would sign it.

CHAKRABARTI: He said he would sign it.

Okay. So in that case, then what would you tell a hundred plus million Americans that they are living through what is essentially one of the largest bands of a product or service in U.S. history?

AUCHINCLOSS: It’s not a ban. TikTok can continue to operate, but it has to answer to U.S. law.

CHAKRABARTI: And if it does not, it has 180 days before it’s prohibited.

AUCHINCLOSS: And what would that tell the American public? That rather than answer to United States law, the Chinese Communist Party would rather one of the most profitable businesses they have go under. I think that says a lot about the intentions of the CCP. And I know that there are arguments about freedom of speech, and I know that there is a very healthy skepticism of anything that has the word ban in it.

And I agree, ban should be the last resort. But let’s be very clear about freedom of expression. I have defended the First Amendment in my 10 years of public life, including unpopular speech. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct. Americans can continue to post whatever they want in the political domain.

They can make fun of the president. They can make fun of Trump. They can make fun of me. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. You do not have a constitutional right to have your post amplified by an algorithm controlled by a foreign adversary that has no transparency to U.S. law. That is not a civil liberty that exists anywhere.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman, I understand readily that TikTok, because of its Chinese ownership, is both a clear and well defined first target for congressional legislation. I can appreciate that. But as you said a little earlier, really, what we have overall is a digital media, social media problem in general.

In fact, your fellow member from the Massachusetts delegation, Senator Ed Markey, has said the same thing. He says there’s no TikTok problem. There’s a social media digital privacy problem. So does that mean, Congressman, that if this TikTok legislation goes through, that you would also readily support future legislation that would say, provide or give the government much greater influence, power, regulatory control over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the other social media platforms.

AUCHINCLOSS: Not only would I support it, I’m drafting it. We got to get TikTok to answer to U.S. law. And then, as we were saying at the earlier part of this conversation, step two, raise the age of Internet adulthood to 16, not 13. And step three is we have to amend Section 230, which is this blanket immunity for all these social media platforms from any kind of accountability, to say, actually, if you are platforming revenge porn, or defamation or harassment or intimate privacy violations, you do actually have liability for that behavior.

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