Montana’s plan for Bank TikTok is a preview for the rest of the country
Washington lawmakers are pushing for an outright ban on TikTok on US soil. Montana could beat them.
The state legislature is further ahead than any other body in the United States in passing a ban on the popular Chinese-owned video app, which has come under intense scrutiny over whether it transmitted sensitive data about Americans to Beijing. A Montana bill to block the app was introduced in February and the state Senate approved it last month. The State House, where the bill is likely to pass after two more votes, is due to consider it on Thursday.
Along the way, the proposal encountered obstacles. A major internet service provider has said it cannot block TikTok in Montana, prompting lawmakers to rewrite the law. A trade group funded by Apple and Google, which operate the app stores that would be banned from offering the app, also said it was impossible for the companies to block access to TikTok in a single state.
And the lobbying has been intense. Critics of China have appeared in hearings supporting the bill. To retaliate, TikTok pushed its users to oppose the legislation by calling and emailing Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gianforte said he would “carefully review any bills that the Legislative Assembly sends to his office” and noted that he had already banned TikTok on state devices.
The fight in Montana is a preview of what the United States could face domestically if lawmakers or the White House try to enact a nationwide ban on TikTok. Even if legislation banning the app is passed, enforcing a ban is technologically difficult and would involve businesses across the digital economy.
TikTok could provoke a backlash among its 150 million US users. And any ban is likely to face legal challenges, with courts knocking down an attempt by President Donald J. Trump to block TikTok in 2020.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, whose office drafted the bill, acknowledged that enacting a state ban on TikTok would be difficult.
“We have no illusions that this will not be contested.“, he said in an interview. “I think that’s the next frontier in First Amendment jurisprudence that will probably have to come from the Supreme Court of the United States. And I think that’s probably where it’s headed.
The proposed ban would come into force in 2024.
The moves in Montana are part of an escalating tech cold war between the United States and China, with TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, caught in the middle.
Last month, members of Congress interrogated Shou Chew, the chief executive of TikTok, for about five hours over whether the app could provide data to the Chinese government or be used to spread propaganda. Over the past five years, U.S. authorities have also cut Chinese telecommunications companies from major providers, subsidized U.S. manufacturers to compete with Asian chipmakers, and forced a Chinese firm to sell the dating app Grindr.
Brooke Oberwetter, spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement that there are “thousands of TikTok creators and users in Montana” who “deserve to have a seat at the table in any conversation that brings them together.” affects and their livelihoods”. TikTok has denied providing user data to the Chinese government.
Mr. Knudsen, a Republican, said his team had received dozens of complaints from parents about content on TikTok that referenced drugs, suicide or pornography. As the state’s legislative session approached this year, his office began to consider the idea of banning the app altogether.
The political environment favors a ban. Montana residents are already protecting their privacy, state politicians have said. Then, in early February, a Chinese spy balloon passed over the state, drawing national attention and raising concerns about spying on Beijing.
“Frankly, the Chinese did us a favor by having that spy balloon float over Montana when they did,” Mr. Knudsen said. After her office drafted the bill, State Sen. Shelley Vance, a Republican, introduced it Feb. 20.
The first version of the proposal, which included fines for internet service providers and app stores if they helped distribute the app, as well as TikTok if it continued to operate in the state, did little. drew attention when the State Senate’s Business, Labor and Economics Council considered it on Feb. 27.
At one point during this hearing, an AT&T lobbyist stood up and announced that the company opposed the bill. He said it was “not feasible” for internet service providers to enforce a ban on TikTok. He said AT&T was discussing a change with the bill’s sponsors that would allow the company to withdraw its opposition to the measure.
Lawmakers had removed any mention of internet service providers like AT&T when the state Senate passed the legislation a week later.
In March, TikTok had hired two lobbyists in the state and was running ads featuring small Montana businesses using TikTok. The app has also started engaging its users.
“We need your help to stop the Montana State Legislature from taking away your right to use TikTok,” the company said in an email posted to a user’s thread. The company gave users a pre-written email they could send to Mr. Gianforte opposing the bill. It sent a similar warning to users via a notification in its mobile app, according to another post on TikTok.
The State House Judiciary Committee considered the bill, which still required Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their stores, during a March 28 hearing.
App stores frequently remove products. A ban on TikTok could also prevent stores from distributing updates to the app, slowly hampering service for users who had already downloaded it. But during the hearing, a representative from TechNet, a trade group that includes Apple and Google, said it would be “impossible” to restrict TikTok state by state.
Apple and Google declined to comment.
State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat, said in an interview that it’s possible TikTok users could disguise their location to retain access to the app even after a ban, which could also be difficult to apply in border towns where Internet connections may involve cellular networks. towers in another state.
But skepticism about TikTok ran deep during the hearing. Keith Krach, a former business executive behind some of the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline Chinese companies, said he wouldn’t let his 11-year-old twins anywhere near the app. He said it was “disguised as candy, but it’s really cocaine”.
“Would you agree with me that TikTok is the music played by the Pied Piper to steal the hearts and minds of this generation?” asked Rep. Neil Duram, a Republican, as Ms. Zephyr, seated next to him, burst out laughing.
“I’m not sure, a bit, what you mean,” replied Keegan Medrano, policy director for the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bill. A post from their exchange quickly gained 70,000 likes on TikTok. Mr. Duram went on to ask Mr. Medrano if he would agree that “this generation” was, via TikTok, choosing the Chinese Communist Party “as their new god.”
Mr Medrano said in an interview that the bill could impact speech, perhaps making it more difficult for people to discuss topics such as “alternative views on vaccines” or “times revolutionaries in other countries”.
Mr Knudsen said the bill was about “an enemy superpower collecting personal information about Montana residents” and he was ready to fight legally.
“I think those are all issues that probably require the courts to intervene here,” he said. “We didn’t just break this legislation willy-nilly without thinking about it.”
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