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Stephen L. Carter, Columnist

TikTok's Free Speech Lawsuit Has a Logic Problem

Unfortunately for the ByteDance-owned social media app, there’s no law against silly laws.

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive officer of TikTok Inc.

Photographer: Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg

Shou Zi Chew,TikTok Inc. 首席执行官。摄影:Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg

My great uncle, a brilliant scholar ultimately imprisoned during the McCarthy Era for his politics, first came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because agents couldn’t find his printing press. In 1941, Uncle Alphaeus was printing flyers urging Negro citizens to register to vote. According to his FBI file, the Bureau wanted to figure out where the subversive literature was being produced so that they might shut down the “underground” printing operation.
我的叔祖父是一位才华横溢的学者,最终在麦卡锡时代因其政治观点而入狱。他第一次引起联邦调查局的注意是因为特工找不到他的印刷机。 1941 年,阿尔法乌斯叔叔正在印刷传单,敦促黑人公民登记投票。根据他的联邦调查局档案,该局希望查明颠覆性文献的生产地点,以便他们可以关闭“地下”印刷业务。

This strange story comes to mind in the wake of the lawsuit filed by ByteDance, owner of TikTok, aimed at preventing enforcement of the unhappily titled Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. The Act says unless the Chinese parent company finds a US buyer for TikTok, the app will be banned from these shores. (Literally; the ban applies “within the land or maritime borders” of the United States.)
这个奇怪的故事在 TikTok 所有者字节跳动提起诉讼后浮现在脑海中,该诉讼旨在阻止《保护美国人免受外国对手控制应用程序侵害法案》的执行。该法案称,除非中国母公司为 TikTok 找到美国买家,否则该应用程序将被禁止进入这些国家。 (从字面上看,该禁令适用于美国“陆地或海上边界内”。)

Like most legislation driven by moral panic, the new law — let’s call it PAFFACAA, because legislation as silly as this deserves a silly acronym — is, well, terrible. The complaint argues that the sort of divestment the statute demands is technologically difficult; whether or not that’s true, nobody imagines that the company will sell its algorithms and source code to a US buyer, or that the government of China would allow it to do so. Moreover, PAFFACAA singles out TikTok for special treatment; other apps that might fall within the statute are granted procedural protections TikTok is denied.
就像大多数由道德恐慌驱动的立法一样,新法律——让我们称之为 PAFFACAA,因为像这样愚蠢的立法值得一个愚蠢的缩写词——是,嗯,可怕的。诉状认为,法规要求的那种撤资在技术上是困难的;无论这是否属实,没有人想象该公司会将其算法和源代码出售给美国买家,或者中国政府会允许它这样做。此外,PAFFACAA还专门对TikTok进行了特殊对待;其他可能属于该法规范围的应用程序将获得程序保护,而 TikTok 则被拒绝。

The more intriguing claim is that PAFFACAA is an unconstitutional burden on the First Amendment rights of its 170 million US users (more than half the population), who engage in protected speech, both when they choose what to post and when they choose what to view. To punish them would be to violate their rights.
更有趣的说法是,PAFFACAA 对其 1.7 亿美国用户(超过一半人口)的第一修正案权利造成了违宪负担,这些用户在选择发布内容和选择查看内容时都参与受保护的言论。惩罚他们就等于侵犯他们的权利。

But it’s less obvious that banning an app violates the rights of users. A regulation that is content-neutral will generally be upheld if it leaves alternative means of expression available and burdens no more speech than is necessary to further the government’s interest. Other apps exist, and if TikTok goes, more will spring up.
但禁止应用程序侵犯用户权利这一点不太明显。如果一项内容中立的法规留下了可供选择的表达方式,并且不会给言论带来超出促进政府利益所需的负担,那么它通常会得到维护。其他应用程序也存在,如果 TikTok 消失,还会出现更多应用程序。

Consider the mimeograph machine, once the heart of the production of everything from handbills to classroom assignments. Had the devices been banned on the ground that the drying process produced trace amounts of airborne methanol, lots of people would have lost their preferred means of sending messages, but their free speech rights wouldn’t have been violated as long as they could still use, say, photocopiers.

Which brings us back to my great-uncle’s printing press.

The federal government was clearly violating my great-uncle’s right of free speech because the hunt for his printing press rested on the content of the flyers he was producing. The voter registration flyers were bad enough. But according to Alphaeus’s FBI file, there was worse: He was also printing employment applications, “so that ‘pressure’ can be brought upon the Federal government to require the hiring of these negroes.” In short, the FBI’s goals involved putting a stop to speech the government didn’t like.

To the extent that the TikTok legislation can be said to have a motive, the problem isn’t the speech of the company or the users; it’s the risk of misuse of the data the company collects on its users. The analogy of the internet to the printing press is often criticized, not without reason, but let’s suppose it fits. In that case, TikTok would be like a print shop whose owner sends information on customers to an “adversary” overseas.
如果说TikTok立法有动机的话,问题不在于公司或用户的言论,而在于用户的言论。这是公司收集的用户数据被滥用的风险。将互联网与印刷机进行类比经常受到批评,这并非没有道理,但我们假设它是合适的。在这种情况下,TikTok 就像一家印刷店,其所有者将客户信息发送给海外的“对手”。

In time of war, I suspect the courts would find such targeting appropriate. In time of peace, the case is shaky. But even were the analogy spot-on, the statute doesn’t rest on the notion that TikTok is delivering user data to China, only that, in theory, it could. That fear might (I emphasize might) provide a sufficient ground to ban all providers and apps operating in the US from exporting data on their users to China. But fear of what might happen is a weak ground for singling out a particular company for punitive measures.
在战争时期,我怀疑法院会认为这样的目标是适当的。和平年代,案情摇摇欲坠。但即使这个类比是正确的,该法规也并不基于 TikTok 向中国提供用户数据的概念,只是理论上它可以。这种担忧可能(我强调可能)提供足够的理由来禁止所有在美国运营的提供商和应用程序将其用户数据导出到中国。但对可能发生的事情的恐惧是针对特定公司采取惩罚措施的薄弱理由。

None of this is to say that supporters of the legislation make no good points. It's true that Congress has often adopted limits on foreign ownership of US firms. And maybe, as supporters insist, apps that are available in the US but keep the source code and algorithms in China are dangerous to national security.

But even if we were to accept those arguments, they would provide support only for a law that makes clear — without references to TikTok and ByteDance — what corporate conduct is being banned and what procedural steps must be taken to prove it. Instead, PAFFACAA gives us an explicit ban of a specific app.
但即使我们接受这些论点,它们也只会为一项法律提供支持,该法律明确(不提及 TikTok 和字节跳动)哪些企业行为被禁止,以及必须采取哪些程序步骤来证明这一点。相反,PAFFACAA 明确禁止特定应用程序。

I’m skeptical that those flaws will be sufficient to persuade a court to strike PAFFACAA down. But if there is indeed a serious crisis, then we deserve serious legislation, authored in a serious way by serious legislators. As so often, what we’ve been given is a good deal less. Democracy is the worse for it.
我怀疑这些缺陷是否足以说服法院驳回 PAFFACAA。但如果确实存在严重的危机,那么我们就应该由严肃的立法者以严肃的方式制定严肃的立法。与往常一样,我们得到的东西要少得多。民主则更糟。

More From Stephen L. Carter Bloomberg Opinion:
斯蒂芬·L·卡特·彭博 (Stephen L. Carter Bloomberg) 的更多观点:

  • TikTok Ban Is Congress’s Latest Moral Panic
    TikTok 禁令是国会最新的道德恐慌
  • Will Columbia Protesters Achieve Their Goals?
  • Silencing Trump With a Gag Order Is Hopeless

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    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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    Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a professor of law at Yale University and author of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
    斯蒂芬·L·卡特 (Stephen L. Carter) 是彭博社观点专栏作家、耶鲁大学法学教授,也是《隐形:击倒美国最强大黑帮的黑人女律师的故事》一书的作者。
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