The Ineffectiveness of Montana’s Ban on TikTok

Montana has become the first US state to ban TikTok on all devices, including personal ones. This move raises new questions about the future of short-form video apps in the country. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill on Wednesday that would fine TikTok and online app stores for making the service available to state residents. The move is a step ahead of other states that have restricted TikTok from government devices and comes at a time when some lawmakers are pushing for a nationwide ban. Legal and technology experts say there are significant hurdles to enforcing such a law for Montana, or any state.

The bill, passed in April, provides fines of $10,000 per day per violation, with one violation being “every time a user visits TikTok, the ability to access TikTok is provided.” According to the law, the individual user itself is not at risk simply by visiting TikTok. If the law survives in court, TikTok and companies like Apple and Google could be forced to find ways to restrict TikTok from smartphone users in Montana, or face huge fines.

TikTok and other civil society groups have warned that the law as written is unconstitutional. There are two main points raised by TikTok advocates. For one, the law violated Montana’s First Amendment rights by limiting their ability to access legal speech and violating their own right to free expression through the app. A group of TikTok users joined the complaint in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Montana Wednesday night, hours after the governor’s signature.

Even if the law survives legal challenges, experts say its ambiguity could make effective enforcement and enforcement difficult. “What this really entails is potentially huge liability for both TikTok and mobile app stores,” said Nicholas Garcia, a policy adviser at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. Authorities may seek to issue subpoenas against TikTok and app stores seeking information on users who have accessed or downloaded TikTok from within the state, but such requests would likely circumvent the ban.

Using a VPN can make it appear that users in Montana are connecting to the internet from out of state borders, making it easy for users to circumvent restrictions. Authorities could try to expand the dragnet by asking companies to use additional data they hold about users to infer who may be visiting TikTok. Garcia said requiring internet providers to implement statewide network filters could be another way to enforce the law. However, internet providers are not listed as a type of entity subject to the TikTok ban.

Like dozens of other states that have imposed some level of restrictions on TikTok, the Montana government has called the app a potential privacy and security risk. U.S. officials are concerned that TikTok’s ties to China through parent company ByteDance could expose personal information of Americans to the Chinese government. TikTok said it is implementing a plan to store U.S. user data on cloud servers owned by U.S. tech giant Oracle, and once the plan is complete, access to the data will be overseen by U.S. employees.

More than half of the US states have announced some restrictions on TikTok affecting apps on government devices. But Montana’s ban marks the beginning of a new phase, and widely anticipated legal challenges may soon determine whether other states will follow suit.

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