Guess who's quietly bankrolling a legal fight against Montana's TikTok ban. Why yes, it's TikTok
Psst, some American user data still stored in China, too
Five TikTok users who sued to overturn Montana's state-wide public ban on the video-sharing app have been getting secret support for their case from an unsurprising source: TikTok itself.
The biz admitted it was funding the suit to the New York Times after the plaintiffs revealed as much. In response, TikTok told the Big Apple newspaper it had every right to do so,.
"Many creators have expressed major concerns both privately and publicly about the potential impact of the Montana law on their livelihoods," a TikTok representative said. "We support our creators in fighting for their constitutional rights."
TikTok said that while it is funding the lawsuit [PDF], no payments are being made directly to the plaintiffs, two of whom said they were solicited by TikTok's lawyers to sign on in exchange for free representation.
"I was like, you know what, I would love to help out with this because I already don't like it, I'm already advocating for [reversing the Montana ban] on my channel," one defendant said.
Ambika Kumar, one of the lawyers named as counsel for the five plaintiffs in the suit, said that TikTok's funding of the fight shouldn't affect the legitimacy of its case. "The fact that TikTok is paying for the suit is irrelevant to the legal merits," Kumar said.
The case hinges on First Amendment free-speech and 14th Amendment due-process claims, and argues that Montana simply can't pass a state-wide public ban on TikTok, a platform filled to the brim with acts of free speech, so it's said.
"Montana has no authority to enact laws advancing what it believes should be the United States' foreign policy or its national security interests," the TikTok-backed lawyers assert in the suit. "Nor may Montana ban an entire forum for communication based on its perceptions that some speech shared through that forum, though protected by the First Amendment, is dangerous."
TikTok users delayed a US ban on use of the app, which was set to be blocked nationwide by the Trump administration had the software's Chinese parent company ByteDance not found an American buyer for its operations in the Land of the Free. It has yet to do so, and is still operating in the US.
Earlier this month the US federal government's ban on TikTok on devices used for government work was extended to include government contractors and their staff, and covers all devices used for government work - even personal ones.
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While TikTok's funding of the lawsuit is above board, the fact it was kept secret until the plaintiffs spilled the beans isn't a great look. We asked TikTok and its lawyers in Montana if they were concerned that news TikTok was funding the fight would affect the outcome, and we didn't hear back from either party.
We also reached out to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, the named defendant in the case, to see if his office had a take on the news. AG Knudsen's office said TikTok's actions are perfectly legal and won't affect the trajectory of the case, but a spokesperson told us it makes clear the reality behind the lawsuit.
"TikTok's 'support' is bought and paid for – Montanans recognize the threat that the app poses to their privacy and national security because it is owned by a company that answers to the Chinese Communist Party," Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for the AG, told us.
Another TikTok admission: Some US user data is still stored in China
News that TikTok is quietly funding a seemingly independent legal battle to overturn the Montana ban isn't the only eyebrow-raising behavior the company has copped to of late. It confirmed to Congress the other week that it was still storing some American data in China.
Last year, TikTok admitted it was storing US user data in the Middle Kingdom, which fueled concerns that Beijing was perfectly positioned to comb over such information or manipulate it as it saw fit. TikTok – which boasts it is used by 150 million Americans, and more than one billion people worldwide – has stood by its position that Chinese officials have never been granted access to US TikTok user data.
That same year, TikTok said it would ensure all US user data stays in the United States and Singapore anyway, in datacenters operated by American IT giant Oracle and using infrastructure maintained by TikTok's US entity. It was hoped that shift, keeping US data out of Beijing's immediate reach, would placate its critics and the American administration, and avoid any outright bans, though it had to concede some China-based TikTok staff could still obtain access to US user data. The biz said that could only happen with various checks and approval from its stateside security team.
Fast forward to last month, and TikTok was found to be storing some information on Americans on computers in China. In a letter to US senators in mid-June, the social media giant explained [PDF], yes, some info is held in China in certain circumstances.
TikTok said data associated with users who were part of its Creator Fund, which pays popular users for generating popular content - and other high-profile US users of the app - was stored in servers overseas, but not for nefarious purposes.
Reportedly that data, held in China, included social security numbers, tax IDs, and other financial information necessary for processing payments.
"Like most companies, we enter into commercial relationships with businesses and individuals, and collect and retain certain information to comply with applicable audit, accounting, tax, and other regulations," TikTok said in response to claims it broke its promises over the location of US data.
Spokespeople for TikTok were not available for further comment. ®