TikTok Bill Is About Defense, Not Censorship, Retired US General Says

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
April 22, 2024Politics
For a deeper discussion on the renewed House bill on TikTok, and the passage of a key foreign aid package, NTD spoke with Brig. Gen. David Stilwell. He's the former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. David Stilwell says new legislation to force the popular video-sharing application TikTok to divest from its Chinese ownership or lose the ability to operate within the United States should be seen as a measure of national defense rather than an issue involving free speech and censorship.

On April 20, the House passed a package of legislation, dubbed the “21st Century Peace through Strength Act,” that includes legislation giving TikTok about nine months to divest from Chinese ownership, after which U.S. app stores and websites will face a fine of up to $5,000 per day per user if they continue to support downloads and updates of the application. This legislation comes on allegations that TikTok is being controlled or otherwise leveraged by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence American users or harm U.S. national security.

Critics of the TikTok divestiture legislation have raised concerns about the power it would give current and future U.S. presidents to decide which mobile applications may do business in the United States and what impacts that would have on the free flow of information online.

Mr. Stilwell, a proponent of the divestiture legislation, insisted during an interview with NTD’s “China in Focus” that it’s wrong to define debate around the bill as an issue of censorship.

“It’s not censorship, it’s defense. So we need to define our terms better,” he said.

Mr. Stilwell—who retired from the Air Force in 2015 and served as the Assistant Secretary of State, East Asian, and Pacific Affairs from 2019 to 2021—said the potential threat of a hostile foreign government “creating unrest, spreading disinformation undermining our electoral process” is “a far greater problem than any loss to one single app.” He insisted those concerned about the loss of TikTok still have plenty of other apps to turn to, such as Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter.

What The Bill Says and Does

The bill that passed the House and now sits before the Senate prohibits entities deemed sufficiently owned or controlled by individuals within an adversary country—namely China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea—from operating within the United States.

The bill specifically identifies “foreign adversary controlled” applications as those that are domiciled, headquartered in, or organized under the domestic laws of China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea or a company in which a person, entity, or combination of persons or entities in the aforementioned countries have a combined ownership stake of 20 percent or more in said company. A third category of “foreign adversary controlled” applications are those deemed to be “subject to the direction or control of a foreign person or entity.”

The bill gives the president of the United States authority to determine when an application poses a national security threat and what “qualified divestiture” actions a parent company would need to take to resolve issues concerning its foreign ownership.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.)—who has opposed the legislation—has warned that the bill’s language surrounding TikTok’s ownership could be used to justify forcing other companies to shake up their ownership and corporate structure.

“The one that scares me is the president gets to say ‘you’re under the control of a foreign adversary country,'” Mr. Massie said during a debate about the bill in March. “And just this week, Dan Goldman and Jamie Raskin sent the chairman of the oversight committee a letter saying we’re concerned that X is allowing foreign terrorists and foreign adversaries to use the platform.”

Speaking with NTD, Mr. Stilwell argued that giving companies impacted by the legislation time to part ways with problematic owners creates a “reasonable” and “balanced” approach to dealing with foreign ownership and control issues.

“We’re not wanting to kill TikTok; you in the U.S. who like it, you can use it. We’re just gonna get the nefarious hand of the Chinese Communist Party out of our open media system,” Mr. Stilwell said.

Health Reasons Also Favor TikTok Divestiture: Stilwell

Arguing beyond the free speech and censorship issues raised by opponents of the TikTok divestiture bill, Mr. Stilwell argued that shaking up TikTok would also be worthwhile from a public health standpoint.

“One of the greatest, most nefarious aspects of TikTok is it triggers dopamine centers, you know, it goes after the emotional center, the amygdala, the lizard brain in all of us. And that’s what makes it so addictive,” he said.

The retired Air Force officer said a colleague of his refers to TikTok’s algorithm as “digital fentanyl.”

“That is not an exaggeration. Instead of a chemically produced opioid, it’s a naturally occurring opioid called dopamine,” he added. “The thing is designed to keep you doom-scrolling forever, because of the images it flashes, because it keeps feeding you more of what you want to see.”

Mr. Stilwell noted that other social media applications besides TikTok employ algorithms that show users more of the kinds of content they’ve previously engaged with. The retired Air Force officer argued that U.S. competitor applications like Facebook are “in no way nearly as addictive as TikTok.”

TikTok’s Timeline To Sell

An earlier version of the TikTok divestiture bill would have given the application’s owners about six months to sell the platform before app store services would face prohibitive fines for hosting the application. The decision to extend that divestiture timeframe to about nine months earned praise from Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a development that could add momentum for the bill’s Senate passage.

Mr. Stilwell said the extended divestiture timeframe appears to be a reasonable measure to “accommodate some interests that we don’t want to rush into it.”

“Let’s find a good buyer. Let’s make a good deal of this. And then we’ll crack it open and show everybody what it was doing, because we know it’s doing nefarious things,” he added.

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