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The RESTRICT Act Threatens Internet Freedom

A  piece of legislation introduced into the Senate earlier this month by Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) has sparked outrage, though Warner’s office said that his bill is not far-reaching as many believe.

Warner’s “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act,” or the RESTRICT Act, does not mention TikTok or ByteDance, yet grants the U.S. secretary of commerce the power to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate … any risk arising from any covered transaction by any person, or with respect to any property” deemed by the secretary to pose “an undue or unacceptable risk,” including in federal elections, “information and communications technology products and services,” and “critical infrastructure or digital economy,” as well as “coercive or criminal activities by a foreign adversary that are designed to undermine democratic processes and institutions or steer policy and regulatory decisions in favor of the strategic objectives of a foreign adversary to the detriment of the national security of the United States.”

The RESTRICT ACT authorizes the commerce secretary to take steps to address risks posed by “any covered transaction by any person.” 

The bill defines a covered transaction as  “a transaction in which an entity described in subparagraph (B) has any interest.” 

As described in subparagraph B, entities are a “foreign adversary; an entity subject to the jurisdiction of, or organized under the laws of, a foreign adversary; and an entity owned, directed, or controlled by” either of these. 

Foreign adversaries can be “any foreign government or regime” that the secretary deems a national security threat.

Warner Spokesperson Rachel Cohen told Newsweek that the provisions only apply when someone is “engaged in ‘sabotage or subversion’ of communications technology in the U.S., causing ‘catastrophic effects’ on U.S. critical infrastructure, or ‘interfering in, or altering the result’ of a federal election in order for criminal penalties to apply.” The RESTRICT Act’s focus is “companies like Kaspersky, Huawei and TikTok … not individual users,” she said.

The RESTRICT Act states that “no person may engage in any conduct prohibited by or contrary to” its provisions, also stating that “no person may cause or aid, abet, counsel, command, induce, procure, permit, or approve the doing of any act prohibited by, or the omission of any act required by any regulation, order, direction, mitigation measure, prohibition, or other authorization or directive issued under, this Act.”  In addition, “no person may solicit or attempt a violation” and “no person may engage in any transaction or take any other action with intent to evade the provisions of this Act.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke out against the bill in a Courier Journal op-ed today:

Before banning TikTok, these censors might want to discover that China’s government already bans TikTok. Hmmm . . . do we really want to emulate China’s speech bans?

TikTok must be banned, the censors say, because they are owned and controlled by the Chinese communist government, but does TikTok do the Chinese government’s bidding? Well, go to the app and search for Falun Gong, the anti-communist religious sect that is persecuted in China. Go to TikTok and search for videos advocating Taiwan’s independence, criticism of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. Videos are all over TikTok that are critical of official Chinese positions. That’s why TikTok is banned in China.

As Drs. Mueller and Farhat of Georgia Tech write: “If nationalistic fears about Chinese influence operations lead to a departure from American constitutional principles supporting free and open political discourse, we will have succeeded in undermining our system of government more effectively than any Chinese propaganda could do.”

The sweeping language of the bill is wide-reaching, and it could have an enormous array of harmful effects, even if it doesn’t make people who use VPNs to access TikTok liable to prosecution.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and there are several different types, but they all share a common purpose: keeping your digital activities and locations private. 

Using a VPN with a computer, phone, or other Internet-enabled device can do things like masking your IP address. It is a good way to bypass location-based firewalls (a.k.a.

Republicans and Democrats are getting increasingly enthusiastic about banning popular video platform TikTok. 

Hawley’s bill would instruct the President to specifically use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to “block and ban all transactions” and to “prevent commercial operations” by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, within the United States. 

The banned activities the bill lists are expansive and the bill’s language is so broad, it seems difficult to rule out it will ever be used that way. 

We have seen so many times where federal laws are sold as attacking the biggest villains, such 

The law is a troubling piece of legislation that would grant the government wide power to restrict or ban all sorts of tools of commerce and communications, as long as they are intangibly connected with whatever nation it deems to be an adversary. 

It would grant law enforcement wide discretion to penalize an array of individuals involved in providing or disseminating any services by those entities. 

It would give authorities broad new powers to target an enormous array of business and expressive activities, and restrict Americans’ access to a broad array of tools, services, and products. 

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