A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) denied that his bill to prohibit social media platform TikTok in the United States would affect virtual private networks, also known as VPNs.
The text of the RESTRICT Act concerned social media users and some technology experts over what appear to be provisions allowing federal officials to severely limit the use of the internet. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo would be enabled by the legislation to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate” perceived risks related to communication and information technology services.
The broad language arguably criminalizes the utilization of VPNs, through which internet users can directly access a private computer network, with fines as high as $1 million or prison sentences as long as 20 years if users reach networks in nations such as China and Russia. VPNs are often used to protect data and ensure privacy while using the internet.
Rachel Cohen, the communications director for Warner, said in a statement provided to multiple media outlets that the RESTRICT Act would not criminalize conventional use of the technology.
“Someone must be 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,” she remarked. “The bill is squarely aimed at companies like Kaspersky, Huawei, and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’ national security, not individual users.”
Critics of the RESTRICT Act noted that the provisions of the bill were sufficiently broad such that officials could construe them to oppose so-called hate speech or otherwise discriminate based on an internet user’s viewpoints. Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, countered on social media that the bill is a “systemic, rules-based approach” to identifying and addressing foreign technology threats rather than an “infringement on free speech.”
Renewed scrutiny of TikTok, which former President Donald Trump considered banning at the end of his term, comes amid increasingly strained relations between the United States and China. President Joe Biden and a number of state officials have banned the platform from government devices after reports indicated that employees of ByteDance, the Chinese technology firm which owns TikTok, monitored the locations of specific American users.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) have meanwhile introduced the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, which specifically grants the commander-in-chief authority to prohibit ByteDance, TikTok, and any of their subsidiaries from conducting operations in the United States. The RESTRICT Act mentions neither ByteDance nor TikTok by name.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the extent to which officials in China maintain authority and influence over TikTok and ByteDance, vowing that the latter is not an “agent of China or any other country.” When pressed by lawmakers, however, Chew failed to clearly answer whether individuals associated with ByteDance helped him prepare for his testimony and admitted that the attorneys who represent TikTok also represent ByteDance.
“I am well aware that the fact that ByteDance has Chinese founders has prompted concerns that our platform could be used as or become a tool of China or the Chinese Communist Party. There have even been calls to ban us or require divestment,” the executive said. “Divestment does not address the fundamental concerns that I have heard, as a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access. This is not an issue of nationality.”