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In a stand against authoritarianism, Montana bans TikTok downloads

Dare we say, Broke App Mountain ... and yes, we know that was Wyoming

Updated Montana has become the first American state to ban downloads of TikTok in its jurisdiction.

Governor Greg Gianforte (R) on Thursday signed a bill into law that prohibits the downloading of the app by Montana residents. Senate Bill 410 bans mobile application marketplaces – such as Google Play and the Apple App Store – from offering TikTok within the state.

And he said the Montana Department of Justice will seek punishment if this law is ignored — though individual TikTok users won't be penalized and nor will anyone carrying out law enforcement, national security, and security research activities, or "essential government uses permitted by the governor on the information technology system of the state."

Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans' private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested

The legislation states the fines will be "$10,000 for each discrete violation and is liable for an additional $10,000 each day thereafter that the violation continues." TikTok is also banned from operating in Montana.

These new rules take effect on January 1, 2024, unless ByteDance-owned TikTok "is acquired by or sold to a company that is not incorporated in any other country designated as a foreign adversary." In that case, the entire act is void.

As you might expect, the reasoning behind the ban is a fear that China could order TikTok's Chinese overlords to use the popular software, installed on 150 million-plus devices in the US alone, to snoop on youngsters and other folks, if not doing so already.

"The Chinese Communist Party using TikTok to spy on Americans, violate their privacy, and collect their personal, private, and sensitive information is well-documented," Gianforte said in a statement. "Today, Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans' private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party."

Will TikTok sue?

TikTok, for its part, disagrees with all of the above, and called the bill "unlawful." 

"There is no truth to the Governor's claim that TikTok is associated with the Chinese government," a spokesperson told The Register, adding that TikTok's parent company ByteDance is about 60 percent owned by global institutional investors, 20 percent owned by the company's founders, and 20 percent owned by employees, which include Americans. 

"The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok," the spokesperson said.

Be as that may, TikTok is a wholly owned subsidiary of ByteDance, a Chinese technology company registered in the Cayman Islands with headquarters in Beijing. TikTok's main offices are in Singapore and Los Angeles. It's the link from TikTok to ByteDance to China's authoritarian regime that has the app's critics concerned.

TikTok's spokesperson declined to comment on whether it plans to sue to stop the ban.

"Governor Gianforte has signed a bill that infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok, a platform that empowers hundreds of thousands of people across the state," the spokesperson said.

"We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living, and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana."

Montana casts a wide net

In addition to signing the TikTok ban, Gianforte also issued a memo [PDF] prohibiting the use of all social media applications that collect and provide personal information or data to foreign adversaries on government-issued devices, while connected to the state network, or for state business in Montana. 

These apps, according to the memo, include TikTok's sister video and social media platforms CapCut and Lemon8 (whose parent company is ByteDance), Russia's Telegram messaging service, and a couple others with parent companies headquartered in China: Pinduoduo's Temu, and Tencent's WeChat.

The memo also prohibits any third-party firms conducting business for, or on behalf of, the US state from using apps with ties to foreign adversaries. All of this takes effect June 1.

Unless, of course, TikTok or any number of trade or free speech advocacy groups files a legal challenge.

NetChoice, a trade organization that TikTok belongs to, called the ban "unconstitutional" and said it violates the First Amendment protections on sharing and receiving speech online. Still, a spokesperson said NetChoice does not "currently" plan to file a lawsuit.

"The government may not block our ability to access constitutionally protected speech – whether it is in a newspaper, on a website or via an app," NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo said in a statement. "In implementing this law, Montana ignores the US Constitution, due process and free speech by denying access to a website and apps their citizens want to use." 

As other individual American states as well as the US Congress mull similar TikTok bans amid Chinese spying concerns, several groups including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Fight for the Future and EFF have spoken out against the proposals.

"We recognize the grave concerns that TikTok and other social media platforms pose for the privacy of individual users," says one letter [PDF] signed by 15 of these organizations and sent to Congress in March.

"We are also aware and we recognize that US government officials have cited serious concerns with respect to the threat that TikTok may pose to US national security."

The letter called ByteDance's lack of direct answers to repeated questioning about how it handles American users' data "unacceptable."

Still, it called on lawmakers to find a fix "short of a full-scale ban," which, according to the signatories "can address these vulnerabilities without resorting to an ill-advised, blanket approach that would impair free speech and set a troubling precedent that could curtail free expression worldwide."

As to whether TikTok truly is a national security scare, we discussed that here, in this Kettle podcast. ®

Updated to add

Some TikTokers in Montana have sued the state seeking to challenge the law.

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