Montana Governor Greg Gianforte has signed new legislation that will effectively ban Chinese-owned app TikTok from operating within the state. The move is aimed at safeguarding Montana residents from alleged intelligence gathering by China, making Montana the first state in the United States to impose such a ban on the popular short video platform. Under the new law, it will be deemed unlawful for Google and Apple’s app stores to offer TikTok to users in Montana. However, individual users will not face any penalties for using the app. The ban is scheduled to take effect from January 1, 2024, although it is expected to face legal challenges.
ByteDance, the Chinese tech company that owns TikTok, did not respond to inquiries regarding their potential legal actions against the ban. In response to the new law, TikTok issued a statement expressing concern over the infringement on the First Amendment rights of Montana residents. They further pledged to continue defending the rights of their users both within and outside of Montana.
TikTok has garnered immense popularity, particularly among teenagers, with over 150 million American users. The Pew Research Center reports that 67 per cent of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17 utilise TikTok, with 16 per cent of all teens claiming to use the app almost constantly. TikTok has clarified that the majority of its users are over the age of 18.
US lawmakers and state officials have been increasingly vocal about their concerns regarding potential Chinese government influence over the platform. In March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced questioning from a congressional committee regarding user data privacy and potential Chinese government interference. However, proposals to implement a nationwide ban on TikTok or grant the Biden administration additional powers to regulate or prohibit the app have yet to make substantial progress in Congress.
Governor Gianforte, a Republican, believes that the new legislation will prioritise the protection of Montanans against surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party. The ban sets the groundwork for TikTok, Apple, and Google to face fines for violating the law. TikTok may face fines for each violation, while Apple and Google could be fined $10,000 per violation, per day.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argue that the law infringes on individuals’ freedom of speech and have deemed it unconstitutional. They have raised concerns that the ban, driven by anti-Chinese sentiment, will hinder Montanans from expressing themselves, accessing information, and conducting small businesses. The ACLU has indicated that legal action may be pursued if the courts do not intervene before the ban comes into effect.
Former President Donald Trump’s attempt to ban new TikTok and WeChat downloads through a Commerce Department order in 2020 was ultimately blocked by multiple courts and did not go into effect.
TikTok has found support among free speech advocates, including Democratic representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organisations like the ACLU. NetChoice, an industry group, and the ACLU of Montana have criticised the new law, highlighting concerns over constitutional rights, due process, and free speech.
Governor Gianforte had initially sought to expand the ban to include other social media applications that share specific data with foreign adversaries. Additionally, he has prohibited the use of social media apps on state government-issued devices if they collect and provide personal information or data to foreign adversaries.
Meanwhile, TikTok has been working on Project Texas, an initiative aimed at storing American user data within the United States on servers operated by US tech company Oracle.