The US should ban TikTok

Gun Rights

“Hold off as long as you can!” That’s the advice we always receive about social media when my wife and I, who have three kids under 4, talk to parents of older children. Screen time eats family time. Parents feel powerless.

As a dad, it’s hard to wrestle with trillion-dollar tech companies. But as a member of Congress, I can fight back. This year, I am introducing bills to raise the age of internet adulthood from 13 to 16 and to hold social media accountable for platforming illegal actions, from stalking to revenge porn. I also co-led a bill to force China’s ByteDance to sell or divest TikTok, or else have it banned from app stores.

The TikTok ban bill passed the House of Representatives last week with a big bipartisan majority. President Biden said he’ll sign it. The Senate should pass it, as the first step to comprehensive regulation of social media corporations. This isn’t just good policy; it also points the way toward more functional politics in Washington.

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TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, X, YouTube, Twitch, Discord, Reddit, and other platforms have wealth and power that is unprecedented, but they are not using it responsibly. Since 2012, around when social media-equipped smartphones became ubiquitous, youth mental health has plummeted. This isn’t just one generation hand-wringing over the next; Gen Z really is struggling. Being attention-fracked during adolescence is partly to blame.

While they’ve been productizing children’s attention for the benefit of advertisers, social media platforms have also plundered our civil discourse. They devoured the business model of journalism, then substituted viral misinformation for shoe-leather reporting. Societal trust has withered. As with youth mental health, blame for our epistemological crisis is multifaceted. It would be simplistic to settle on one cause; but both social science and common sense indicate that social media is a driver.

TikTok is a special instance of the general problem. Controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, TikTok is not just a platform for user-generated content; it is also a tool of censorship and propaganda for our adversary. Americans would recoil if Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, or CNN were controlled by the CCP. In aggregate, these TV stations don’t reach as many Americans daily as TikTok does — about one-third of US adults use TikTok.

Critics cry foul on the First Amendment. Freedom of speech, however, does not mean freedom of reach: US citizens have the sacrosanct right to post what they believe, but there is no concomitant right for that post to be amplified, especially by adversaries. An algorithm controlled by an adversary isn’t protected by the Constitution.

Eighty percent of my House colleagues agree. That strong showing mirrors a House bill from this term that modestly reins in pharmacy benefit managers, the middlemen of drug-pricing that profit from high prescription drug prices. There are even echoes of the bipartisan legislation last term that improved gun safety against lobbying by the National Rifle Association.

The common thread is Congress taking on special interests on behalf of everyday Americans. It turns out that majorities of our constituents want their representatives to fight back against egregious behavior by health insurance companies, gun manufacturers — and social media companies.

Requiring that TikTok follow US law is step one. Step two is actually passing some social media laws. To date, Big Tech has smothered every attempt. They have not supported my bill to raise the age of internet adulthood to 16 years old, despite the shock my constituents express when I tell them it’s 13. And TikTok, Meta, and the rest will recoil at my attempt to pierce Section 230, the 1990s law that shields social media platforms from liability for user-generated content, and demand a duty of care from these corporations.

Congress finally has momentum to take on the special interest that has corroded youth mental health. Let’s not back down now.

US Representative Jake Auchincloss represents the Massachusetts 4th Congressional District and serves on the House Select Committee on China.

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