WASHINGTON—Today, free expression organization PEN America released a letter signed by more than a dozen other civil liberties, digital rights, and anti-censorship  organizations, including the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, opposing federal legislation and proposals that seek to impose a wholesale ban on social media platform TikTok in the United States.

Signed by the Knight Institute, American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, among other prominent organizations—the letter lays out how a nationwide ban on TikTok would have serious consequences for free expression in the digital sphere and set a dangerous precedent for the restriction of speech in a time of increased global censorship of internet users.

Released in advance of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s scheduled testimony before Congress on Thursday, March 23, the letter acknowledges the national security and user privacy concerns surrounding TikTok, but calls on lawmakers to explore viable solutions that would not jeopardize the expressive rights of 150 million U.S. users of the platform through a wholesale ban that would render the platform inaccessible. 

TikTok, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, has sparked security concerns in the U.S. regarding the degree to which the Chinese government could demand access to user information or utilize the platform to disseminate disinformation or propaganda to American audiences. The White House has backed a bill introduced in the Senate that would give the administration the power to ban TikTok and other foreign-based technologies. Last week, the Justice Department said it was investigating ByteDance regarding surveillance of American journalists after the company acknowledged its employees had accessed the data of Buzzfeed and Financial Times reporters to identify the source of leaks within the company. 

The letter reads in part: “We recognize the grave concerns that TikTok and other social media platforms pose for the privacy of individual users. We are also aware and we recognize that U.S. government officials have cited serious concerns with respect to the threat that TikTok may pose to U.S. national security. ByteDance’s prevarication in response to repeated queries about its handling of American users’ data is unacceptable. But solutions short of a full-scale ban can address these vulnerabilities without resorting to an ill-advised, blanket approach that would impair free speech and set a troubling precedent that could curtail free expression worldwide…Nearly 150 million Americans use TikTok to connect, and to create and share content. Whether they use the app to live stream, promote a small business, share their creative work, connect with family, or find information on how to vote, their speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment encompasses the right to receive information, irrespective of its source, free from government interference. If the government were to intervene to ban TikTok entirely, it would impair the rights of citizens to communicate in a manner of their choosing, giving rise to significant First Amendment concerns.” 

Alternatives to a ban proposed in the letter include expediting the work of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to investigate the national security concerns arising from TikTok and implement measures to address them, and introducing a robust and comprehensive consumer privacy bill to limit data commodification and thereby increase users’ security online.

The letter further emphasizes implications for international free expression. A domestic ban could lend legitimacy to authoritarian regimes seeking to obstruct online expression by banning or restricting the use of online platforms. The U.S. government has previously condemned several governments for enacting such restrictions.

Statements from the letter’s co-organizers are included below:

Jameel Jaffer, Executive Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University:

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to access social media platforms of their choice, and to receive information from abroad. To justify a TikTok ban, the government would have to demonstrate that concerns about privacy and security can’t be addressed in narrower ways. The government hasn’t demonstrated this, and we doubt it could.”

Nadine Farid Johnson, Washington Director at PEN America:

“Taking a bludgeon to TikTok, and by extension to Americans’ First Amendment protections, is not the right solution to the risks that TikTok poses to the privacy of Americans and to the national security of the United States. Rather than a wholesale ban on a platform that enables expression and exchange, policymakers should enact and rigorously enforce comprehensive consumer privacy protection legislation to limit data commodification and dramatically increase users’ security online. A ban by Congress at a time when censorship both online and in the public sphere is spreading worldwide would undermine the U.S.’s standing on the global stage and risk sending a legitimizing message to authoritarian governments that seek to wall off parts of the internet.”

Greg Nojeim, Director of the Security and Surveillance Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology:

“Rather than banning TikTok, Congress should focus on passing baseline privacy legislation. It would address many of the concerns that have driven some to propose banning TikTok, and it would benefit consumers rather than limit their choices about the communication apps they could use.”

Read today’s letter here.

For more information, contact: Adriana Lamirande, [email protected]