TikTok in America – urgent need for legislation free of politics

The US Congress has decided that TikTok’s owner, the Chinese company ByteDance, must be barred from the United States in order to protect US citizens from “foreign adversaries.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for urgent independent legislation to address the issue of allowing foreign platforms to use a democratic country’s information space.

ByteDance has been given the choice of leaving the United States or leaving the United States. On 23 April, Congress passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, under which it is unlawful to “distribute, maintain, or update” an app controlled by a "foreign adversary country," whether North Korea, Russia, Iran or China.

The law specifically targets ByteDance and its hugely successful platform TikTok as well as all of its other apps. TikTok will be banned from US devices within the year unless ByteDance previously sells it or the law is challenged before the District of Columbia appeals court.

In RSF’s view, this latest attempt to ban the Chinese social media app from the United States raises an important underlying issue. The public’s right to information is being completely ignored. The political authorities are too easily swayed by geo-political considerations to be allowed, on their own, to decide whether to shut down an app used by 148 million Americans. This underscores the need for clear, overarching legislation on the ways foreign platforms can gain access to a democratic information space.

“Let's be clear. TikTok is not a model of reliable access to information and its recommendation algorithm, surely one of the most addictive in the world, is a major disinformation catalyst. But this issue is completely ignored in a law based solely on the claim that ByteDance is controlled by China. Tension between the United States and China should not dictate regulation of the information space. This sensitive issue must be addressed within a legal framework independent of the political authorities. We call on the United States to develop such legislation by adopting the system for protecting democratic information spaces designed by RSF, which addresses the issue of platforms linked to authoritarian governments without neglecting the public’s right to access information.

Vincent Berthier
Head of RSF’s Tech Desk

Independent legislation to avoid information wars

The system of protecting information spaces proposed by RSF prevents information wars between open spaces, such as those in democratic countries, and closed spaces such as China’s, which the authorities control closely while distributing their own content to foreign countries. Democracies are vulnerable because their information markets are open, while media and social media based in democratic countries are blocked in closed spaces, especially China.

The legal framework proposed by RSF includes a reciprocity mechanism designed to encourage openness and to promote independent, pluralistic and reliable information in all countries involved. Its goal is effective regulation of the information space being shaped by all the various platforms, not just the Chinese ones, which are far from being the only ones to threaten information integrity. 

Used wisely, this framework could provide the United States with leverage to encourage the Chinese government to relax its control over its own information space. It offers a way out of the crisis based on principle, putting  protection of the public’s right to information back at the heart of the debate.

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Updated on 26.04.2024