Five Things That Would Be More Useful Than Banning TikTok

While it's great to see Congress working together, it'd be even better if it were for something that would actually help Americans.

The U.S. House of Representatives has demonstrated this week that Congress can move quickly when it wants to. The urgent matter before the House? Banning (or more accurately, incentivizing Chinese divestment of) TikTok. In about a week, we saw this bill – the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act – move through the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a 50-0 vote, and then pass the House with a vote of 352-65. 

While it is heartening to see such bipartisanship in the House, it is disappointing that what animated this moment was a bill that will do little to help or protect the American people. If the House really wants to ensure that everything from broadband access to local journalism benefits the public, then we have some recommendations. 

  1. Extend the Affordable Connectivity Program: The Affordable Connectivity Program is a subsidy that gives $30 per month to low-income families struggling to afford internet access. This program has been wildly successful. Unfortunately, the program’s funding runs out by the end of April. There is a bill in the House and Senate that would extend the program, but it hasn’t been voted on yet. Twenty-five million families could lose access to affordable broadband if Congress doesn’t move quickly.
  2. Privacy for All: The sponsors of the TikTok ban made it clear that they were concerned about protecting Americans’ privacy. Rather than banning one application, a much better solution would be to pass a comprehensive privacy law. Luckily, a bipartisan bill exists and it was marked up in the House during the 117th Congress. The American Data Privacy and Protection Act regulates the entire data ecosystem; meaning no matter what application, website, or device a person uses, their data is protected. 
  3. Support Local Journalism: Legislators also said they were concerned that TikTok could be weaponized to spread narratives of disinformation. Here’s an antidote: support local news. It’s dying. It is expected that more than one-third of the newspapers that existed in 2005 will be gone by the end of 2024. The collapse of local news is fueling the political divisions in our country and allowing for misinformation to spread rapidly. But this problem is not unsolvable. Congress has proposals to incentivize new business models. This includes creating tax incentives for advertising in local newspapers, payroll tax credits for the employment of journalists, and making it easier for news organizations to become 501(c)3s.
  4. Encourage Tech Competition: The internet has come to be controlled by a few powerful gatekeepers. This concentration of control needs to end. There are a number of solutions to this problem. Whether it’s barring platforms from discriminating against or excluding their competitors, mandating interoperability so that users can more easily switch between services, making Big Tech prove that the acquisitions they make maintain competition, or structurally separating Big Tech companies into smaller ones — any of these options would materially improve competition on the internet. Taken together, these bills could radically transform the internet we have now.
  5. Create a Digital Regulator: The best way to resolve the ongoing problems we are having with Big Tech is to create a digital regulator: an expert agency that quickly adapts to ever-changing technology and business models and complements the ex post enforcement of antitrust enforcers with ex ante research, regulation, and other guardrails. Congress often complains that Big Tech changes too quickly to effectively legislate. If that is the case, then an expert agency, like the one described in the Digital Platform Commission Act, may be the best way to continuously protect consumers from harm. 

There are not many legislative days left in the 118th Congress’ calendar. And as outlined above, there is plenty of work to be done – and that does not include other Congressional priorities like passing a budget. Public Knowledge would hate to see the only tech policy accomplishment of the year being the forced sale of TikTok to some other American company. (And any American company that buys TikTok could still sell Americans’ private information to China.) 

Picking a company and blaming it for everything is easy. And certainly TikTok (like other social media platforms) raises many concerns. But we cannot myopically focus on TikTok; not when we haven’t guaranteed affordable broadband access, a competitive tech environment, or privacy for all. There is too much serious work to be done to waste time on something that feels as performative as banning TikTok.