OPINION: The RESTRICT Act is more than just a threat to TikTok

Liam Martin HM ’24 agrees that the looming “TikTok ban” is dangerous — but its implications, he argues, go way beyond what was outlined in a recent TSL Op-Ed. (Courtesy: Cottonbro Studio, Pexels)

Why care about the First and Fourth Amendments when your favorite social media website is on the line? This, more or less, seemed to be the main argument of TSL opinions’ staff writer Rowan Gray’s recent article on what he called the “TikTok ban.” While arguing in a positive direction, the article completely misses the point: this ban is a horrible idea because of what it would affect, the precedents it creates and the requirements to enforce it.

The TikTok ban in its most recent iteration is actually called the RESTRICT Act, an extension of the PATRIOT Act, first established in 2001. The eerily named RESTRICT Act was introduced just this March and threatens more than easy access to high-volume, low-quality entertainment on a personal tracking device. The act essentially grants the Commerce Department the ability to charge individuals with up to 25 years in prison for obtaining banned software, a charge they consider smuggling. 

These software are those produced by the United States’ foreign adversaries — China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, DPRK and Iran — and that meet any other qualifications they see fit, including restrictions on software that interferes with elections, tacked on for bipartisan brownie points. 

Obtaining this software, as many young tech-literate students know, is relatively easy through Warez sharing. Warez sharing has been around since the advent of the internet and has only gotten safer and easier with proxy and VPN services, anonymizing networks and torrenting. 

Yet, the RESTRICT Act sets a precedent that makes those practices even more closely monitored than before. Since the act targets companies — though not explicitly so — VPN and proxy services in the United States run the risk of having their users placed on an invasive watch list. 

While Gray’s article does bring up the RESTRICT Act and its friends, the analysis regarding its effect on people is shortsighted and unnecessarily defeatist. I agree that it is preferable to have Chinese agents gather our information over American agents who can do more damage with it. I also agree that all large social media websites and their applications have enormous data collection and retention problems. But what I don’t agree with is TikTok being necessary to have a “youth culture” and Gray’s take on surveillance in general. 

As an aside: To remove the phrase from its double-quote prison, I’ll take “youth culture” to be whatever collection of fads and celebrities is being worshiped by people aged 10-20; I don’t know what most of these fads are, but I can safely assume that TikTok is one of them.

The article presents a defeatist and unsophisticated opinion on what surveillance is. Surveillance is already, unfortunately, commonplace, so many peoples’ already complacent views may be vindicated by the article. Even if one doesn’t care about the metadata they put out onto the internet, their actions affect others in a manner not commonly considered. Take this: You might only be looking at cat videos on website X, buying things off of website Z and surfing the web in other ways that aren’t unique or even notable. The aggregate of this information can still be used to deanonymize you and everyone else you talk to through these websites, your computer and especially your smartphone. 

The comment on the Chinese government using their “massive security-state apparatus” to personally hunt you down negates the cheap and easy surveillance that China’s web scrapers and traffic sniffers already use. In fact, surveilling you barely imposes a cost for them. Yes, that should make you extremely concerned. 

This flippant take on one’s data collection also sets a precedent for governments and companies to conduct surveillance. People content with overarching surveillance for the sake of a little convenience kills expectations of privacy for everyone. It conditions the population to agree with whatever they now share with three-letter agencies and anyone else allowed to listen in. There are more people to consider than yourself when choosing whether or not to use a specific piece of corporate malware or restrictive hardware.

While nowhere near as important as the previous opinion, the argument that TikTok is necessary to have a youth culture is absurd. There have been multiple, flourishing youth cultures that have occurred and passed without the presence of harmful social media websites and user tracking. Millennials even had an internet-centric youth subculture that is currently being fetishized by today’s youth. 

To anyone who has opened a book or talked to someone considerably older than they are, it should be obvious that TikTok isn’t needed. Sure it’s addictive, evident by how many people I see with their necks craned over a tiny screen walking in front of oncoming traffic, but it isn’t needed. A youth culture can exist without its youth being taken advantage of in such a nefarious way.

And if you want to talk to someone online not using any of these technologies, talk to a Harvey Mudd College student; any one of them will probably be able to tell you about getting started with XMPP and IRC.

Liam Martin HM ’24 is currently living under a rock and enjoying his dwellings. He welcomes further comments over encrypted email.

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