Montana governor signs into law first-of-its-kind TikTok ban

A close-up of Greg Gianforte against a row of American flags

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte has signed into law a measure to severely restrict the app TikTok, making his state the first to enact a near-total ban on the social media platform in the United States.

The law, slated to take effect on January 1, 2024, would bar TikTok from operating in Montana. It would also prohibit app stores from offering TikTok for download within state lines — a ban that tech companies fear will be impossible to implement and free speech advocates see as a violation of their First Amendment rights.

“This law tramples on our free speech rights under the guise of national security and lays the groundwork for excessive government control over the internet,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a tweet following Wednesday’s announcement.

“Elected officials do not have the right to selectively censor entire social media apps based on their country of origin.”

TikTok, owned by the Beijing-based internet technology company ByteDance, boasts more than 1 billion users around the world, 150 million of which are based in the US. It also employs 7,000 people in the country.

But while China and TikTok’s owners have repeatedly denied that the video-sharing app is a threat, TikTok has earned bipartisan scrutiny in the US and other countries over questions of privacy, surveillance and alleged ties to Beijing’s government.

Privacy Policy

In signing the anti-TikTok legislation on Wednesday, Gianforte promised “to protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party”.

He also issued a memorandum to the state’s chief information officer calling for the ban to be widened to other social media apps with foreign ties, including the China-based WeChat and Telegram, which was founded by two Russian-born entrepreneurs.

In addition, the memorandum said that, effective June 1, no state employee could download or access social media apps “that provide personal information or data to foreign adversaries” using government-issued devices and networks.

TikTok, Gianforte’s letter alleges, “harvests expansive amounts of personal information and data from its users’ devices, much of which is unrelated to the app’s purported objective of video sharing. It is well documented that the company provides such information and data to the Chinese Communist Party.”

TikTok has not yet announced whether it will file a lawsuit to overturn the Montana ban, but legal challenges are expected.

The company did issue a statement affirming users’ right to free speech through the platform.

“We want to reassure Montanas that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living and find community as we continue to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana,” spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said.

Approximately 30 US states, as well as the federal government, have already barred TikTok from being used on government-owned devices. Countries like the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and India have also taken similar steps in recent months.

In April, the United Kingdom’s privacy watchdog agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office, fined the app 12.7 million British pounds ($15.9m) for mishandling the data of child users, including by failing to get consent from their parents before processing their information.

In March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew made his first public appearance in a US congressional hearing to address concerns about user privacy in the country.

Chew underscored that TikTok “is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government”, emphasising its headquarters are based in Singapore and Los Angeles. He also touted a $1.5bn initiative to create a US-based storage programme through contracts with Oracle Corporation, a multinational tech company based in Austin, Texas.

“We believe we are the only company that offers this level of transparency,” he told the hearing.

But Chew drew criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. “Your platform should be banned,” Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said to him at one point.

TikTok has said it faced pressure from US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to either sell its US operations to another party or face potential restrictions.

In March, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on a bill to empower the president to limit any transactions with TikTok, a measure which, if passed by the full Congress, could allow for a ban.

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