What a TikTok Ban Would Mean for the U.S. Defense of an Open Internet

For decades, the United States has fashioned itself the champion of an open internet, arguing that the web should be largely unregulated and that digital data should flow around the globe unhindered by borders. The government has argued against internet censorship abroad and even funded software that lets people in autocratic states get around online content restrictions.

Now that reputation could take a hit.

The House is expected to again try to advance legislation to force a sale of TikTok by its Chinese owner, ByteDance, or institute a first-of-its-kind ban on the app in the United States, this time including it in an aid package for Israel and Ukraine. It is expected to be similar to a stand-alone measure that passed the House last month with bipartisan support, the most significant step yet by Congress to force the sale of a foreign-owned app of TikTok’s size.

Digital rights groups and others around the world have taken notice — and raised the question of how the moves against TikTok contradict the United States’ arguments in favor of an open internet.

A Russian opposition blogger, Aleksandr Gorbunov, posted on social media last month that Russia could use the move to shut down services like YouTube. And digital rights advocates globally are expressing fears of a ripple effect, with the United States providing cover for authoritarians who want to censor the internet.

In March, the Chinese government, which controls its country’s internet, said America had “one way of saying and doing things about the United States, and another way of saying and doing things about other countries,” citing the TikTok legislation.

By targeting TikTok — a social media platform with 170 million U.S. users, many of them sharing dance moves, opining on politics and selling wares — the United States may undermine its decades-long efforts to promote an open and free internet governed by international organizations, not individual countries, digital rights advocates said. The web in recent years has fragmented as authoritarian governments in China and Russia increasingly encroach on their citizens’ internet access.

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