Montana has become the first US state to ban TikTok after the governor signed legislation prohibiting mobile application stores from offering the app within the state by next year.
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance has come under increasing scrutiny over its ties to China, amid concerns that such links could pose a national security threat.
Lawmakers in the US from both political parties have raised concerns, including if the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on US citizens.
“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,” Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement.
The measure follows Gianforte’s ban of the app on government-owned devices in late December. The governor said Tiktok posed a “significant risk” to sensitive state data.
Gianforte also announced Wednesday that he was prohibiting the use of all social media applications, including WeChat and Telegram Messenger, linked to foreign adversaries on state equipment and for state businesses in Montana.
The federal government, and more than half of US states, have prohibited the app on government devices and the Biden administration has threatened a national ban unless its parent company sells its shares.
TikTok is one of the world’s most popular social networks with more than 100 million US users.
TikTok ban in Montana “infringes on the first amendment rights”
The company has previously denied that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and has said the company would not do so if asked.
TikTok said in a statement that the Montana bill “infringes on the first amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok”, and that the company intends to “defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana”.
In March, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was forced to defend his company’s relationship with China at a bipartisan congressional hearing, with lawmakers also grilling the CEO on the social network’s impact on the mental health of young people.
Montana’s new law, which will take effect 1 January, prohibits downloads of TikTok in the state and would fine any “entity” – 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. The penalties would not apply to users.
Montana’s ban is expected to face legal challenges and will serve as a testing ground for the TikTok-free America that many national lawmakers have envisioned.
Opposition to the Montana ban
Opponents consider the measure to be government overreach and say Montana residents could easily circumvent the ban by using a virtual private network, a service that shields internet users by encrypting their data traffic, preventing others from observing their web browsing.
Meanwhile, internet freedom advocates and others have criticized the US crackdown as amounting to censorship.
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”.
NetChoice, a trade group that counts Google and TikTok as its members, called the bill unconstitutional.
“This is a clear violation of the constitution, which prohibits the government from blocking Americans from accessing constitutionally-protected speech online via websites or apps,” Carl Szabo, who serves as the group’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement.
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