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Free speech faces heavy knock-out blow if the US congress stops TikTok’s clock

Free speech faces heavy knock-out blow if the US congress stops TikTok’s clock
The author asks, what of free speech when the US congress puts a halt to TikTok? (Image: ideogram.ai, prompted by author)

US lawmakers are pushing a bipartisan bill that could force TikTok's Chinese parent company to sell the platform or face a ban.

On 7 March, the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the US passed a bipartisan bill that could force ByteDance, the Chinese-controlled parent company of TikTok, to sell the video-sharing platform or face a ban in the United States. There is much to be said about this, but it comes down to a single question — what exactly is free speech? Does it just drown in its own definition?

First some stats, especially for those readers (probably of a certain age), who do not spend time on TikTok. I am one of those but mainly because, on the few occasions I have gone onto TikTok, the dopamine-fueled excitement and anticipation I experienced with each new video felt very much like the pull of various drugs I recklessly ingested a long time ago — I could have sworn that the TikTok experience was doing the same thing to my brain as a line of cocaine circa 1985.

But it is not your correspondent who counts, so gawp at these numbers:

  • Global users approaching 2 billion.
  • US users at 175 million, 25% of whom are teenagers or younger.
  • Two out of every three users use TikTok every day — 1.5 billion people.
  • TikTok has a 90% satisfaction rating among users — it is a much-loved service.
  • Advertisers rate it as the 7th most trusted brand in the world.

And, most terrifyingly, 43% of users get their news on the app. Why terrifying? Because that’s nearly a billion people. And the potential for political manipulation of its news content by the Chinese owners must be impossibly tempting. Of course, we have seen this in the US as well, with Twitter and FB both bowing to government pressure and censoring some of their posters (especially those with Covid-alt content), but TikTok is on a different scale and has a far sterner taskmaster — the Chinese Communist Party.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Facebook, X, TikTok and YouTube give thumbs-up to violent, sexualised hate speech targeting women — report

The US government is clearly worried about Chinese interference with the substance or delivery of content on this huge platform — not only in what is allowed on the site, but also in how user data is held, analysed and repurposed. The verb ‘worried’ is probably an understatement when it comes to some lawmakers. Given the state of relations between the US and China, and the latter’s shameless employment of citizen surveillance, well, you can hear the fire alarms blaring.

Read more in Daily Maverick: TikTok fined €345m over handling of children’s data in Europe

So what is this bill all about? Basically, it states that the Chinese parent company must sell their US subsidiary to a more friendly owner (preferably US-owned, I suspect). And they must do it quickly to avoid TikTok being banned in the US. In short, cut ties with the CCP or else.

Free speech threat

This boils down to the US threatening to ban free speech. There is no way to come to a more nuanced conclusion. The US-based CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, looked a little like a startled deer when he gamely tried to defend TikTok from attack in Congress this week, mumbling a steady stream of cliches about their commitment to free speech. But when he was asked about TikTok news content covering the persecution of the Uyghurs, or the tracking of non-friendly journalists, his confidence visibly ebbed as he mealy-mouthed his way through the answers.

So, what is the company doing to defend itself against this legislative onslaught? Appealing to its users, of course. A message on the app says “Congress is planning a total ban of TikTok. This will damage millions of businesses, destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country, and deny artists an audience.” It then calls on its US users to contact their congressman or woman. 175 million happy US customers is a big stick to use against US political interference, assuming those users can tear themselves away from their TikTok screens long enough to actually do something.

They have a point. The majority of TikTok videos are just fine and some things, like the explosion of excellent short-form tutorials, are a marvel. (If you want to learn how to use Excel, TikTok is by far the best place to do so.)

It is difficult to know where to stand on this, morally speaking. The quaint old Internet cry of ‘information wants to be free’ now seems to belong to an embarrassing episode of liberal optimism, as opposed to a slogan which has a much clearer ring of truth about it in today’s world, that is, ‘information wants to be weaponised’.

Which brings me back to my original question — is free speech actually a thing you can hold in your hands and inspect? Clearly not. Not only for reasons of ‘veracity’. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley had two further concerns, both equally relevant. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance. (See an excellent article on this subject in the New Yorker here.)

The US does not want new content filtered through Chinese censors, and the CCP does not want content that it considers politically inconvenient to be freely available in China. Both countries will puff up their chests and claim the moral high ground, both will claim that the versions of the truth that they edit and disseminate are in the best interests of their citizens.

In common with most readers of this column (I assume), I like the American model of free speech. Mostly. I do not like the Chinese model. And I would probably support the banning of TikTok in the US if the Chinese do not sell it — in full knowledge that the banning of websites is largely a fool’s remedy.

But I can’t, in all confidence, say I’m right. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership is published by Maverick451 in SA and Legend Times Group in UK/EU, available now.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    This is super easy to answer, do you want an adversarial foreign country to have access to information about online activities of your citizens, while being banned from trying the same with China’s citizens?

    China can make as much noise as they want about free speech, but they are forgetting themselves. Everyone else either do not understand our have an agenda.

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