Montana Senate passes ban on TikTok for all residents

It heads to the state House next as the company pushes back on its efficacy.
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

The Montana Senate passed a bill to prohibit TikTok from operating anywhere in the state.

The sweeping legislation, which heads to the state House next, goes far beyond earlier actions by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) and other governors to ban the popular, Chinese-owned video-sharing app from state-issued smartphones, computers and servers.

Under the bill, Montana, with a population of approximately 1.1 million people, would become the first state to completely outlaw TikTok by prohibiting the operation of the app by the company or its users within the state’s borders. The measure would also bar app stores from offering TikTok for download in the state. Violations would carry a fine of up to $10,000 per incident, although TikTok users themselves would not be subject to the penalties.

There are a narrow set of exemptions, including for law enforcement activities and “essential government uses” that are allowed by the governor.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Shelley Vance (R), cites concerns about Chinese government influence over the company, user data privacy, and content on TikTok “that directs minors to engage in dangerous activities.”

“It’s time to ‘Stop the Tok’ in Montana,” Vance said in a statement prior to the bill’s passage. “The application is a major threat to our national security. … It also promotes dangerous content to young people and threatens the health and safety of Montanans.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) supports the proposed ban.

“TikTok poses a threat to every Montanan who has the app on their devices,” Knudsen said in a statement. “We know that the Chinese Communist Party is using it to spy on Americans by collecting personal information, keystrokes, and even the locations of its users.”

TikTok said the bill is premised on a series of falsehoods. The company said the Chinese government does not have direct or indirect influence over it or its holding company, ByteDance Ltd. TikTok also said it does not collect the real-time physical location of users and that content encouraging people to do dangerous things violates the app’s community guidelines and is removed.

“This piece of legislation is an egregious violation of Montanans’ free speech rights, and it will close off Montana from the 100 million strong TikTok community in the United States,” TikTok COO V Pappas said in a statement. “We hope that Montana legislators will consider those serious consequences—and the disastrous precedent they’re setting — and weigh them against the deeply flawed arguments put forward to justify this ban.”

The company said a ban would harm everyday users, small business owners and creators, including those who showcase Montana as a great place to visit.

“It does lots of bad stuff while actually doing nothing to protect anyone in Montana,” said Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson.

In a letter opposing the bill, NetChoice, a center-right tech trade group, said it shares the concerns of Montana lawmakers over the Chinese Communist Party, but called the proposed law unconstitutional and urged them to “think twice before passing this unlawful and dangerous bill.”

“[I]t is one thing for the government to ban access to applications on government-issued devices. But banning access on privately bought and privately owned devices is an extraordinary exercise of government power — and it’s an unjustified and unconstitutional means to protecting national security,” the letter said.

In recent years, TikTok has faced increased scrutiny from state and federal officials because of its vast popularity and its ties to China. In 2020, then-President Trump signed an executive order that attempted to ban TikTok in the U.S., although that effort was ultimately blocked by the courts.

Congress passed a law in December banning TikTok from federal government devices. Last month, President Biden issued an order to implement that requirement within 30 days. This week, the Republican-led U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced legislation that would grant the president authority to restrict access to apps such as TikTok.

Nearly 30 states have taken action against TikTok, according to tracking by GovTech.com. Many have banned the app from state-owned or issued devices. In December, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) filed a pair of lawsuits against the company, and a group of Republican attorneys general demanded that Google and Apple’s app stores raise TikTok’s age rating.

Separately, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has been engaged in a lengthy review of TikTok which could potentially lead to a requirement that the company’s ownership structure change in order to continue operating in the U.S.

Republican governors, state lawmakers and members of Congress have led much of the backlash against TikTok in a growing rhetorical war on China. But increasingly Democrats are also raising security concerns about the app and taking action to limit access on government devices.

For its part, TikTok said ByteDance Ltd. is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and that roughly 60% of the company is owned by global investment firms.

As pressure and scrutiny build, TikTok this week unveiled a series of new features for teens and families. They include a default daily limit of 60 minutes for users under 18 and a screen time “dashboard” for parents to see how much time their kids are spending on the app.