TikTok ban author denies legislation will affect VPNs

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, is seen.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, is seen. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

TikTok ban author denies legislation will affect VPNs

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The author of a bipartisan bill that would allow the Commerce Department to ban TikTok said the bill would not restrict the use of VPNs after speculation arose online that it would.

Tech publications and social media users raised the fear that the RESTRICT Act, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD), would criminalize the use of VPNs — virtual private networks — in some circumstances. VPNs protect users online by running their activity through a server in a different location and changing their online signature in the process, sometimes allowing users to bypass local restrictions. VPNs are entirely legal in the United States, but some users claim that the use of the VPN could be considered criminal under the terms of the RESTRICT Act if it was used to access the Chinese or Russian internet.

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Warner’s office contested this reading. “This legislation is aimed squarely at companies like Kaspersky, Huawei, and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’s national security – not at individual users,” Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, told the Washington Examiner.

The bill does not directly name VPNs as a focus, but some claimed this week that the language of the legislation could allow lawmakers to penalize VPN users.

“The Restrict Act is INSANE,” crypto investor Jesse Eckel tweeted. “20 years in prison for using a VPN. The ability for them to target essentially anything they deem a ‘risk.’ Seizure of property and digital assets. Could’ve simply banned Tiktok, but instead they go full villain on us.”

Cohen said that someone would need to be in “sabotage or subversion” of American technology, causing “catastrophic effects” or “interfering in, or altering the result” with a federal election to be held liable under the proposed legislation.

The RESTRICT Act would give Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo the power to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate … any risk arising from any covered transaction by any person, or with respect to any property” if the secretary determines that they pose “an undue or unacceptable risk” and could involve “foreign nations of concern” such as China or Iran.

Warner’s bill has the support not only of several Republicans but also of the White House, making it the leading proposal to act on bipartisan worries about TikTok’s affiliations with the Chinese Communist Party. In recent days, some conservatives and libertarians have argued that it would give the government too much power to engage in censorship.

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Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) have proposed outright bans of TikTok for months over its data collection practices and relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before Congress last week, where he was grilled by lawmakers on both sides over the company’s practices.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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