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The Grim Reality of Banning TikTok

The U.S. government, once again, wants to ban TikTok. The app has become an incontrovertible force on American phones since it launched in 2016, defining the sounds and sights of pandemic-era culture. TikTok’s burst on the scene also represented a first for American consumers, and officials—a popular social media app that wasn’t started on Silicon Valley soil, but in China.

On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell TikTok or else the app will be banned on American phones. The government will fine the two major mobile app stores and any cloud hosting companies to ensure that Americans cannot access the app.

While fashioned as a forced divestiture on national security grounds, let’s be real: This is a ban. The intent has always been to ban TikTok, to punish it and its users without solving any of the underlying data privacy issues lawmakers claim to care about. Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw said it outright: “No one is trying to disguise anything… We want to ban TikTok.”

But, as such, a ban of TikTok would eliminate an important place for Americans to speak and be heard. It would be a travesty for the free speech rights of hundreds of millions of Americans who depend on the app to communicate, express themselves, and even make a living. And perhaps more importantly, it would further balkanize the global internet and disconnect us from the world.

Read more: What to Know About the Bill That Could Get TikTok Banned in the U.S.

This isn’t the first time the government has tried to ban TikTok: In 2021, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order that was halted in federal court when a Trump-appointed judge found it was “arbitrary and capricious” because it failed to consider other means of dealing with the problem. Another judge found that the national security threat posted by TikTok was “phrased in the hypothetical.” When the state of Montana tried to ban the app in 2023, a federal judge found it “oversteps state power and infringes on the constitutional rights of users,” with a “pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment.”

Trump also opened a national security review with the power to force a divestment, something Biden has continued to this day with no resolution; and last year, lawmakers looked poised to pass a bill banning TikTok, but lost steam after a high-profile grilling of its top executive. (Trump has done an about-face on the issue and recently warned that banning TikTok will only help its U.S. rivals like Meta.)

TikTok stands accused of being a conduit for the Chinese Communist Party, guzzling up sensitive user data and sending it to China. There’s not much evidence to suggest that’s true, except that their parent company ByteDance is a Chinese company, and China’s government has its so-called private sector in a chokehold. In order to stay compliant, you have to play nice.

In all of this, it’s important to remember that America is not China. America doesn't have a Great Firewall with our very own internet free from outside influences. America allows all sorts of websites that the government likes, dislikes, and fears onto our computers. So there’s an irony in allowing Chinese internet giants onto America’s internet when, of course, American companies like Google and Meta’s services aren’t allowed on Chinese computers.

And because of America’s robust speech protections under the First Amendment, the U.S. finds itself playing a different ballgame than the Chinese government in this moment. These rights protect Americans against the U.S. government, not from corporations like TikTok, Meta, YouTube, or Twitter, despite the fact that they do have outsized influence over modern communication. No, the First Amendment says that the government cannot stop you from speaking without a damned good reason. In other words, you’re protected against Congress—not TikTok.

The clearest problem with a TikTok ban is it would immediately wipe out a platform where 170 million Americans broadcast their views and receive information—sometimes about political happenings. In an era of mass polarization, shutting off the app would mean shutting down the ways in which millions of people—even those with unpopular views—speak out on issues they care about. The other problem is that Americans have the constitutional right to access all sorts of information—even if it’s deemed to be foreign propaganda. There’s been little evidence to suggest that ByteDance is influencing the flow of content at the behest of the Chinese government, though there’s some reports that are indeed worrying, including reports that TikTok censored videos related to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence, and the banned group Falun Gong.

Still, the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that Americans have the right to receive what the government deems to be foreign propaganda. In Lamont v. Postmaster General, for instance, the Court ruled that the government couldn’t halt the flow of Soviet propaganda through the mail. The Court essentially said that the act of the government stepping in and banning propaganda would be akin to censorship, and the American people need to be free to evaluate these transgressive ideas for themselves.

Further, the government has repeatedly failed to pass any federal data privacy protections that would address the supposed underlying problem of TikTok gobbling up troves of U.S. user data and handing it to a Chinese parent company. Biden only made moves in February 2024 to prevent data brokers from selling U.S. user data to foreign adversaries like China, arguably a problem much bigger than one app. But the reality is that the government has long been more interested in banning a media company than dealing with a real public policy issue.

There is legitimate concern in Washington and elsewhere that it’s not the government that controls so much of America’s speech, but private companies like those bred in Silicon Valley. But the disappearance of TikTok would further empower media monopolists like Google and Meta, who already control about half of all U.S. digital ad dollars, and give them a tighter choke hold over our communication. There’s already a paucity of platforms where people speak; removing TikTok would eliminate one of the most important alternatives we have.

Since it launched in 2016, TikTok has been the most influential social media app in the world, not because it affects public policy or necessarily creates monoculture—neither are particularly true, in fact—but because it has given people a totally different way to spend time online. In doing so, it disrupted the monopolies of American tech companies like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and forced every rival to in some way mimic its signature style. There’s Facebook and Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, Snapchat Spotlight, and every other app seems to be an infinitely-scrolling video these days.

Still, Americans choose to use TikTok and their conversations will not easily port over to another platform in the event of it being banned. Instead, cutting through the connective tissue of the app will sever important ways that Americans—especially young Americans—are speaking at a time when those conversations are as rich as ever.

The reality is that if Congress wanted to solve our data privacy problems, they would solve our data privacy problems. But instead, they want to ban TikTok, so they’ve found a way to try and do so. The bill will proceed to the Senate floor, then to the president’s desk, and then it will land in the U.S. court system. At that point, our First Amendment will once again be put to the test—a free speech case that’s very much not in the abstract, but one whose results will affect 170 million Americans who just want to use an app and have their voices be heard.

Contact us at letters@time.com.