The recently introduced Restricting Access to Networks and Technology (Restrict) Act, US Senate bill S. 686, aims to grant the government sweeping powers to identify and prohibit apps, software, and services that originate from declared foreign adversary countries. While its sponsors assert this "TikTok ban" bill is necessary to address national security risks, perhaps the most controversial aspect is the Act‘s potential to impose harsh punishments for using VPNs and other privacy tools to circumvent bans. As an avid VPN user myself, I wanted to provide some deeper insights and analysis on S. 686 to help others understand what‘s at stake for online privacy and freedom.
TikTok Usage Statistics Show What‘s on the Chopping Block
Let‘s start by looking at some key stats around TikTok, the app called out as a prime target in the Restrict Act. TikTok now has over 130 million monthly active users in the United States. It‘s one of the most downloaded and highest grossing apps worldwide, with an estimated hundreds of millions of users outside of China. The addictive short-form video platform is beloved by teens and young adults in particular – around 90% of its users are between the ages of 13 and 34.
Banning TikTok outright would mean cutting off access to one of America‘s most popular digital entertainment sources. And TikTok is just one example – Restrict Act bans could eliminate thousands of other helpful or recreational apps and sites from designated "enemy" countries. For both better and worse, foreign platforms are deeply integrated into the daily digital lives of millions of Americans.
Precedent Around the World Shows Risks of Overreach
Some argue this level of censorship is necessary, but we can look to oppressive regimes to understand the risks of governments banning access to information. In China, the Great Firewall blocks a huge portion of the internet, wiping out access to apps we take for granted like Google, Facebook, and major Western news outlets. Russia has recently accelerated its own censorship efforts to silence anti-Ukraine voices.
In democratic societies like Turkey, India, and even Australia, excessive internet filtering and site blocking still runs rampant. Once governments obtain the authority to ban entire classes of applications and communication tools, it becomes all too easy for censorship to expand into ever-growing areas.
Constitutional law experts have questioned whether country-wide app bans like those proposed in the Restrict Act could violate First Amendment free speech protections. While national security is critically important, many fear these actions go beyond reasonably addressing specific threats and enable broader suppression of discourse.
Circumvention Tools Like VPNs Are Vital for Privacy and Freedom
Some of the most concerning provisions in S. 686 are the harsh penalties prescribed for any individual or organization found to be circumventing the application and access bans enacted under the law. Depending on the severity of the violation, people could face over $250,000 in civil fines or up to $1 million in criminal fines and 20 years imprisonment for evading government restrictions.
Many digital privacy advocates have interpreted this broad language around circumvention to include use of VPNs and other encryption tools to access prohibited platforms and services. But VPNs and similar technologies play a vital role in preserving online privacy and providing secure internet access in authoritarian regimes. Protestors escaping censorship in Iran recently used VPNs to share information during widespread anti-government demonstrations. Activists in Russia rely on VPNs and Tor to avoid identification while spreading anti-war content banned by the Kremlin.
If Americans can face prison time just for using privacy tools to access banned apps, this poses a grave threat to the liberties we often take for granted. Sure, a TikTok ban might just feel annoying at first. But permitting the wholesale blocking of communication channels from entire nations, and criminalizing methods of circumvention, puts us on a very slippery slope toward government overreach and suppression of free speech.
Broader Security Risks of Limiting VPN Usage
There are also powerful practical arguments against discouraging VPN adoption in the general population by equating it with criminal activity. VPNs have become essential for safeguarding the security and privacy of personal data.
Over 37 billion records were exposed in public data breaches during 2022. Using a VPN helps conceal your IP address and encrypt your network traffic, making you less vulnerable to cyberattacks. With rising concerns over ransomware, financial fraud, and identity theft, Americans should be encouraging broader VPN usage rather than threatening anyone who employs them with massive fines or prison time.
Some claim restricting VPNs is acceptable if focused only on accessing banned content. But suppressing privacy tools, even narrowly, can have chilling effects on overall usage. And the reality is VPNs have many perfectly legal and beneficial applications beyond circumventing site blocking. Their blanket vilification as circumvention aids will ultimately weaken everyone‘s protections online.
More Reasonable Approaches Exist for Addressing Security Concerns
While officials are right to be wary of potential threats from foreign tech firms, the Restrict Act‘s sledgehammer approach could do as much long-term damage as good. There are smarter ways to balance security with civil liberties.
For example, governments could require foreign apps to localize citizens‘ data domestically as a condition of operating, rather than banning access outright. They can also impose transparency requirements around source code and data collection practices without resorting to app bans. Narrow blocking of specific dangerous app features may be justified, but banning entire platforms often proves an overreaction.
Many have accused S. 686 supporters of xenophobic hypocrisy as well, given the US‘s own companies like Facebook and Google raise similar data privacy concerns through invasive tracking and surveillance. There are certainly merits to re-evaluating relationships with foreign tech firms, but focusing exclusively on designated "enemy" countries seems more self-serving than security conscious.
Americans pride ourselves on freedom of speech and providing an open and accessible internet. But the harsh anti-circumvention penalties in bills like the Restrict Act could inflict lasting damage to online privacy and liberty worldwide. I hope lawmakers carefully consider these risks and work to refine the legislation‘s approach if it moves forward. The security of our nation‘s data infrastructure is critical, but so are the rights and values that define us.