Human rights groups come out against TikTok ban over free speech concerns

Leading human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long been critical of the Chinese government and its policies. But the groups are lining up against a proposed U.S. TikTok ban, despite the fact that the app’s parent company is Chinese, saying that eliminating a major platform for public expression won’t fix Beijing’s civil rights record or secure Americans’ privacy.

“We ran this by our legal team and that is the conclusion they came up with — that this potential ban does not comply with international human rights standards,” said Frederike Kaltheuner, Human Rights Watch’s director for technology and human rights.

There is growing bipartisan support in Washington for tightening restrictions around TikTok and even banning it nationwide. Many states already prohibit the app on government devices, and in a five-hour hearing last month House lawmakers slammed TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over national security concerns they say are posed by the app, among other issues.

Chew pushed back against bipartisan proposals to block TikTok saying the platform, which boasts 150 million active users in the U.S., is secure and independent of Chinese government meddling. But while some Democrats are fretting over the potential political costs of banning the platform, interest in tightening rules around it remains high on Capitol Hill.

As the scrutiny has ramped up, some civil liberties advocates have been taking their arguments to the platform’s own users.

In late March, Human Rights Watch posted a TikTok video acknowledging that China’s ruling Communist Party controls social media inside the country and “has a track record of detaining and abducting business executives who fail to toe the party line.” Despite risks that the platform could be used for surveillance, censorship and propaganda, banning it wouldn’t address existing data privacy shortfalls, the video said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has used its TikTok account to answer users’ questions about the proposed ban and urged them to reach out to members of Congress to protest HR 1153, a House bill that would impose new restrictions on TikTok and other social media companies around how Americans’ personal data is handled.

In response to the argument that a potential ban would infringe on Americans’ First Amendment rights, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri cited concerns about the app being used by the Chinese government for espionage purposes and to harvest data on its users.

A handful of lawmakers have voiced opposition to banning TikTok. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., posted her first ever TikTok video on March 24, arguing against what she said would be an “unprecedented” ban and calling for stronger regulations to protect users from data collection by all social media companies. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a fellow New York Democrat, has also gone to bat for TikTok, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has raised free speech concerns to warn against such a move.

The human rights groups count themselves among those who say a TikTok ban would curtail their speech.

The platform “has literally changed how people consume information, how they expect to get their news, how they want to interact with one another and the way that they build community online,” said Emily Patterson, director of social media and merchandise at ACLU, whose account has nearly 146,000 followers.

Patterson said the group uses TikTok to interact directly with users, disseminate educational content, debunk misinformation and answer common questions about social issues. In total the ACLU has released eight videos discussing the potential TikTok ban, which have amassed more than 2.5 million views.

Human Rights Watch credits the platform with similar upsides, estimating that 17% of its TikTok audience — some 47,000 users — is between the ages of 18 and 24.

“TikTok allows us to reach an entirely new demographic: younger, with a lot of passion for our issues,” said Stephen Northfield, deputy chief communications officer at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a natural platform for us to reach an audience that we aren’t getting on other channels like Facebook and Instagram, so we see this more as a net new audience.”

Amnesty International, which has also criticized a proposed TikTok ban on free speech grounds, uses the platform to connect with its 113,000 followers over everything from women’s rights in Iran to police shootings in Greece.

In a Pew survey released last week, the largest share, 46%, of young Americans ages 18 to 29 opposed a ban. Just 29% of that demographic said they supported a ban and 24% weren’t sure. By comparison, roughly half of U.S. adults overall said they wanted TikTok banned, with 22% opposed and 28% undecided.

Ioana Literat, an associate communications professor at Columbia University, acknowledged that TikTok, like other social platforms, can be a powerful vector for misinformation. And while she said more regulation is needed to protect and expand spaces for democratic debate online, it is undeniable that TikTok has become a political space for young people to engage in activism and explore their political identity.

Victoria Hammett, a TikTok creator and the deputy executive director for Gen-Z for Change, a nonprofit utilizing social media to spotlight progressive issues, said TikTok has made it more accessible for young people to engage in activism and spotlight issues that they care about. Likewise, other prominent human rights groups have spoken about TikTok’s role in engaging the public.

“Regardless, we will still stick around,” Hammett said. “If [the ban] does happen, we will utilize Instagram and other digital tools. But for TikTok, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for youth organizing and for digital action. So it would be a huge loss for activists everywhere to not be able to utilize this digital tool.”

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