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How App Store Bills Would Undermine a TikTok Ban

by David McGarry

The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act (H.R. 7521) would force TikTok to separate from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, or lose access to American devices. As the bill hurdles through Congress, some lawmakers would do well to reexamine their larger app-related cybersecurity platforms.

In recent Congresses, the idea of a federal sideloading mandate has gained popularity. Some congressional efforts would force device manufacturers to allow sideloading (the process of downloading apps outside OS-vetted app stores), despite the considerable attendant cybersecurity risks. In other words, they would rob consumers of the choice between a more constrained, safer device (e.g., an iPhone) and a freer device with fewer cybersecurity protections (e.g., an Android phone).

Lawmakers who support both H.R. 7521 and the pro-sideloading bills support a contradiction. The latter would undermine the former. If H.R. 7521 becomes law and ByteDance refuses to divest from its subsidiary, app stores would accordingly remove TikTok from their digital shelves. However, motivated users could continue access through sideloading. “All TikTok would have to do is find a foreign web host and it would be able to keep funneling American data back to the CCP without divesting from ByteDance,” writes Tom Hebert, director of competition and regulatory policy at American for Tax Reform. “Thanks to government-mandated side loading and weakened cybersecurity protections, American users would be able to access and download TikTok directly to their phones from whatever foreign-hosted website ByteDance sets up.”

This illustrates a dynamic with significance beyond TikTok. Besides personal security, many individuals or organizations have compelling reasons to choose devices that disallow sideloading. A parent might want to ensure children only access vetted apps. A government might want to minimize cybersecurity risks stemming from its employees’ devices. A sideloading mandate, however, would foreclose the option to choose maximally secure devices. Under other pieces of legislation, parents could not provide their children devices that would bar completely the option to download and use TikTok – or any other objectionable app, for that matter.

Users consistently choose online systems and platforms that, while somewhat constraining, provide convenience or safety features that fully open systems cannot. When governments decide that consumers have chosen wrong, they unleash unintended consequences galore, usually forcing consumers to bear the costs of their technocratic hubris.

Note: The Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation takes no position on the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which, at this blogpost’s publication, is being debated in Congress.

Published on March 26, 2024