Sapna Maheshwari, David McCabe, and Cecilia Kang, reporting for The New York Times:

Just over a year ago, lawmakers displayed a rare show of bipartisanship when they grilled Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, about the video app’s ties to China. Their harsh questioning suggested that Washington was gearing up to force the company to sever ties with its Chinese owner — or even ban the app.

Then came mostly silence. Little emerged from the House committee that held the hearing, and a proposal to enable the administration to force a sale or ban TikTok fizzled in the Senate.

But behind the scenes, a tiny group of lawmakers began plotting a secretive effort that culminated on Wednesday, when President Biden signed a bill that forces TikTok to be sold by its Chinese owner, ByteDance, or risk getting banned. The measure, which the Senate passed late Tuesday, upends the future of an app that claims 170 million users in the United States and that touches virtually every aspect of American life.

For nearly a year, lawmakers and some of their aides worked to write a version of the bill, concealing their efforts to avoid setting off TikTok’s lobbying might. To bulletproof the bill from expected legal challenges and persuade uncertain lawmakers, the group worked with the Justice Department and White House.

And the last stage — a race to the president’s desk that led some aides to nickname the bill the “Thunder Run” — played out in seven weeks from when it was publicly introduced, remarkably fast for Washington.

“Thunder Run” is a McCarthyist First Amendment violation straight from the Second Red Scare. This law was only able to pass because it was attached to a much-needed foreign aid appropriations bill, funding Ukraine and Israel and providing billions of dollars of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations. It was included to ensure broad support within the Republican party — a compromise House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana had to make to ensure members of his party would support the aid package. Republicans aren’t known for being the smartest of people, but it’s wrong to solely place the blame on their antics this time. Moderate Democrats played a hand in pushing the bill over the finish line, effectively stripping half the country of their First Amendment rights.

The government has yet to provide concrete evidence of a national security threat, which is strange, because the only sound legal argument for this law is national security. ByteDance is owned and effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and there is potential for the Chinese to compromise the security of the United States with access to hundreds of millions of Americans’ phones. Yet, there is zero evidence of this happening in actuality — I’m not saying that it isn’t happening, but there is no evidence for the public to see. When this law is challenged in court — and it absolutely will be — this will be the primary aspect of the case, as silencing speech because “terrorist content is promoted” is easily one of the most illegal things Congress can ever do. From the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That is the entire amendment, and there is no need for more because it’s extremely descriptive. Congress cannot make a law that prohibits the “free exercise of speech” — period, no matter what that speech is — unless it’s in the interests of the government’s job of protecting the American people. If there is no attempt to prove that this law is in support of that job, this bill should get tossed straight into a fire. There is a reason that yelling “I’m going to bomb this airplane!” in an airport is not considered “free exercise of speech,” so the same logic applies here: The government must provide tangible proof that TikTok’s continued Chinese ownership is an equivalent danger to someone yelling “I’m going to bomb this airplane!”

When the government makes that argument, it cannot use the speech on TikTok as proof, because no matter the speech, speech alone cannot impede national security. For example, 4chan is filled to the brim with unfavorable, illegal speech, but the government can’t directly punish the platform owner for “threatening national security” due to Section 230 of the Communications Acts of 1934 and 1996 which give platform owners immunity from what people say on them. Forcing the divestiture of a company because of speech on a platform — illegal or not; supporting terrorists or communists is not illegal — is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and has been proven case after case before the Supreme Court.

That leaves just one more question: Why won’t ByteDance divest TikTok? It’s a good question that I’ve also been pondering because I’m not one to favor Chinese control over one of the largest social media platforms in the United States. I want a TikTok divestiture, but I don’t want it to be forced by the government. I’ve come to this conclusion: ByteDance won’t ever divest TikTok not because it doesn’t want to, but because it legally cannot due to its Chinese ownership and control. The CCP is truly an authoritarian government, and TikTok is its best way of manipulating the public’s image of it, so it’s willing to let a Chinese company suffer financially if it means displaying a facade of strength in front of the United States. The CCP doesn’t care about the money ByteDance makes — it’s communist — but it does care about the data ByteDance generates. It wants power, and the best way for it to truly change the public’s perception of it is by threatening the public’s favorite social media platform.

Naturally, if TikTok vanishes in a year — a prospect that I think is still thoroughly unlikely — Americans will solely place the blame on their government, not on TikTok or China. And that point of contention between Americans and their government is exactly the reason why China doesn’t want to divest TikTok. The Chinese government wants power and strength; it wants to change the way Americans perceive it across the Pacific. This bill just gave China a brand new, effective strategy. Nice work, Washington — you’ve been outsmarted by Beijing again.