Big Tech Free Speech Original Politics TikTok Victoria Valenzuela

Montana Becomes First State to Ban TikTok Amid Concerns of First Amendment Violations

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a law that will make Montana the first state to ban TikTok in the US, following a series of escalations against the video-sharing app.

By Victoria Valenzuela / Original to ScheerPost

On Wednesday, Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed measure SB 419 into law, making it the first state in the U.S. to impose a complete ban on TikTok. The new law mandates that the distribution of the video-sharing app will be a punishable offense for violators beginning next year.

The bill, which passed the state house in a 54-43 vote last month, is part of a larger series of escalations from the US against TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company Bytedance, since the Trump administration’s first attempt at banning the app three years ago over national security concerns. Many have been quick to flag this as an issue of the censorship of free speech as well as anti-Asian sentiments. 

On several occasions, including a nearly six-hour long congressional hearing in March, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew has previously denied that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and has said the company would not do so if asked. Lawmakers and FBI officials are continuing to insist, without evidence, that the app could lead to security breaches and surveillance.

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“The Chinese Communist Party using TikTok to spy on Americans, violate their privacy, and collect their personal, private, and sensitive information is well-documented,” Gov. Gianforte wrote in a statement earlier. “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.”

If the state is successful in effectively banning TikTok, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says it will be violating the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use the app to communicate and express themselves daily and the ban could set the precedent for more government control.

The law is expected to face legal challenges. Cybersecurity experts anticipate that other than avoiding the fine, there’s nothing incentivizing the companies involved to comply and it will be extremely difficult — if not impossible — to adequately enforce the law. The law will fine an app store or TikTok $10,000 per day for each time someone “is offered the ability” to access the social media platform or download the app.

Following Gianforte’s signature of SB 419, the ACLU, who is opposing the bill, issued the following statement:

This ban comes after the federal government already banned the use of TikTok on government devices, a measure most of the U.S., including Montana’s state government, has adopted. Gianforte outlawed TikTok in Montana’s state government devices in December, which he will now expand to all social media platforms tied to foreign adversaries starting June 1 on the basis that it poses “a significant risk” to sensitive state information. 

On May 17, the Associated Press wrote, “There are 200,000 TikTok users in Montana as well as 6,000 businesses that use the video-sharing platform.”

The Associated Press also reported:

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter argued that the law infringes on people’s First Amendment rights and is unlawful. She declined to say whether the company will file a lawsuit.

“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,” Oberwetter said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties of Montana and NetChoice, a trade group that counts Google and TikTok as its members, also called the law unconstitutional. Keegan Medrano, policy director for the ACLU of Montana, said the Legislature “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.”…

Though many lawmakers in Montana have been enthusiastic about a ban, experts who followed the bill closely said the state will likely have to defend the legislation in court.

The ACLU said that while data privacy is a concern across all social media apps, the singling out of TikTok points to an anti-Asian sentiment that is racist.Montana’s TikTok ban also comes amid a growing movement to limit social media use among kids and teens. This includes the recently reintroduced Kids Online Safety Act, which requires surveillance of anyone 16 and under and puts the tools of censorship in the hands of state attorneys generals, among several other bills circulating in Congress aim to get at the issue.

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Victoria Valenzuela

Victoria Valenzuela is an investigative reporter based in California covering issues in criminal justice. She currently oversees the criminal justice coverage as a reporter at ScheerPost. She is also a fellow with the Law and Justice Journalism Project. In the past, Valenzuela has also worked with ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is completing graduate studies at the University of Southern California, where she also helps teach a class on the power and responsibility of the press.

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