Montana of all places? The first US state to ban TikTok?!

On Thursday, May 18, 2023, in a move that has left many perplexed, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed a piece of legislation that bans Chinese-owned TikTok from operating within the state. This unprecedented move is aimed at protecting Montana residents from alleged intelligence gathering by China. The legislation makes Montana the first state in the US to ban the popular short video sharing app.

The law will effectively make it unlawful for Google and Apple’s app stores to offer TikTok within Montana. However, it does not impose any penalties on individuals using the app. The ban is expected to take effect on January 1, 2024, but is almost certain to face legal challenges.

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TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, did not respond to a Reuters question asking if it planned to take legal action. However, the company did release a statement earlier, saying: “The new law infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok.” It added that the company “will continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana.”

TikTok has over 150 million American users, and its popularity with teens has led to growing concerns amongst law-makers about potential Chinese government influence over the platform. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of US teens aged 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16% of all teens say they use the app almost constantly. TikTok has previously said that the “vast majority” of its users are over 18-years-old.

In March, a congressional committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over whether the Chinese government could access user data or influence what Americans see on the app. However, calls to ban TikTok nationwide or give the Biden administration new powers to crack down on or ban it altogether have not advanced in Congress.

Governor Gianforte, a Republican, said the bill would further “our shared priority to protect Montanans from Chinese Communist Party surveillance.” TikTok, for its part, has repeatedly denied that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and has said the company would not do so if asked.

Montana, which has a population of just over one million people, has indicated that TikTok could face fines for each violation and additional fines of $10,000 per day if it violates the ban. The app can be downloaded from app stores on Apple Inc and Google devices. If Apple and Google violate the ban, they could also face fines of $10,000 per violation per day.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has slammed the law as “unconstitutional,” noting that it will go into effect on January 1 if the courts do not act. “With this ban, Governor Gianforte and the Montana legislature have trampled on the free speech of hundreds of thousands of Montanans who use the app to express themselves, gather information, and run their small business in the name of anti-Chinese sentiment,” said Keegan Medrano, policy director at the ACLU of Montana, in a statement.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump attempted to ban new downloads of TikTok and WeChat through a Commerce Department order, but courts blocked the move, and it never took effect. TikTok’s free speech allies include several Democratic members of Congress, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and First Amendment groups, like the ACLU. Industry group NetChoice has also criticized the new law, saying that the government may not block their ability to access constitutionally protected speech, whether it is in a newspaper, on a website, or via an app.

Governor Gianforte had sought to convince the state legislature to broaden the ban to other social media applications that provide certain data to foreign adversaries and has prohibited the use of all social media applications that collect and provide personal information or data to foreign adversaries on state government-issued devices.

In other news, TikTok is presently working on an initiative called Project Texas, which creates a standalone entity to store American user data in the US on servers operated by US tech company Oracle.

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