When Montana lawmakers this year singled out TikTok for banishment because of its ties to China, the embattled social media company responded.
Records show TikTok retained two Helena-based contract lobbyists as the bill gained momentum following a national media frenzy over a Chinese spy balloon that drifted across Montana at 60,000 feet. The U.S. Air Force eventually shot down the balloon.
Prior to 2023, TikTok had no registered lobbying presence in Montana.
“They were late to the game,” said state Sen. Daniel Zolnikov (R), who met with TikTok’s lobbyists. “They were at quite a disadvantage.”
That situation highlighted the fact that TikTok’s state-level lobbying operation is still a work in progress as state and federal policymakers scrutinize and seek to restrict it.
Compared with competitors such as Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube, TikTok, which launched in its current form in 2018, is far younger. It’s also still growing, even after topping 150 million U.S. users in March.
The tech industry as a whole has stepped up its lobbying presence in state capitals as antipathy toward and concerns about Big Tech have grown, and as inaction at the congressional level has shifted to the states the debate over issues such as data privacy, app store competition, digital taxation and, more recently, social media regulation.
Between 2021 and 2022, TikTok doubled its state lobbying presence from four to eight states and 20 to 43 lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets. Google registered 194 lobbyists in 39 states in 2022.
Complete data for 2023 is not yet available, but a scan of available state lobbying databases revealed TikTok added lobbyists this year in at least two more states, Ohio and in Massachusetts, where the company has an office.
TikTok, which has also dramatically increased its federal lobbying, declined to share details of its growing state lobbying footprint.
In an emailed statement, a TikTok spokesperson said, “Our goal is to educate policymakers about the impact of legislation on the people who use TikTok to earn a living, express themselves, and find community.”
TikTok has faced heightened scrutiny because of its popularity with teens and its connection to China, which has fueled concerns that the video-sharing app could be used as a vehicle for Chinese government spying — something the company refutes and for which there is no clear evidence. Americans’ user data is stored by Oracle in its U.S. cloud environment, according to the company.
Still, that narrative was a key driver of the Montana law, an outlier proposal that sought to bar individuals and businesses in Montana from accessing TikTok within the state’s borders.
It was the latest in a series of slings and arrows aimed at the company.
In December 2022, amid a growing rhetorical war on China, Republican governors began stampeding to bar TikTok from government-owned electronic devices. They followed the lead of Nebraska, which enacted the first such state-level ban in 2020. Some Democratic-led states and the Biden administration soon joined the movement.
Also last December, 15 Republican state attorneys general sent letters to Google and Apple demanding they increase the age rating for TikTok on their app stores, which they have not done.
TikTok has also been the subject of a raft of negative press coverage on topics ranging from its algorithms to how it collects user data to controversial TikTok challenges, which added to lawmaker concerns about the app.
A multi-state coalition of attorneys general is investigating TikTok’s effects on youth mental health. Arkansas, Indiana and Utah have already sued the company. Indiana’s lawsuit was recently dismissed. Arkansas’s lawsuit also names Meta, which is separately being sued by more than 40 states — most recently Montana and New Mexico — for alleged harms to youth.
At the federal level, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is reportedly under pressure to sell TikTok or face a potential national ban.
The location of the company’s ownership, which is central to some of the concerns about TikTok, is a point of contention. ByteDance is registered in the Cayman Islands and has offices in China — though TikTok says ByteDance does not have a single global headquarters. TikTok is headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and the company says global institutional investors make up the majority of its ownership.
The states where TikTok had lobbyists as of 2022 were Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, according to OpenSecrets.
In New York, lobbying reports show TikTok weighed in on bills that would have banned the app from government-issued devices, required greater digital privacy protections for youth, and made it easier for social media users to report hateful content on social media sites. TikTok said it supported the hateful content bill, which was passed and signed into law.
While TikTok continues to build its state lobbying force, the company also enjoys muscular representation in state capitals through NetChoice, a right-of-center tech trade group that has aggressively opposed and litigated against state-level efforts to regulate social media and internet companies.
NetChoice sued last December to overturn a first-in-the-nation California law that requires tech platforms that are likely to be used by children to be designed with their best interests in mind. NetChoice sued Arkansas in June to overturn a law requiring age verification and parental permission for youth to have a social media account. Judges have since halted the implementation of both laws.
“We view ourselves as sort of the sword and the shield for the tech industry writ large,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice.
Szabo, who described TikTok’s state government relations as “naturally maturing,” said it is up to individual companies to decide whether they need their own lobbyists to advocate for company-specific issues.
Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of Chamber of Progress, a left-of-center tech trade group, said TikTok is “largely on their own” when it comes to defending against governors and state lawmakers who target the company because of its ties to China.
“The China issue is so unique to them, so it’s not like anyone else can really help them with that,” Kovacevich said.
TikTok is not a Chamber of Progress member.
In Montana, TikTok’s lobbyists, its users and other opponents of the bill were unable to dissuade lawmakers from passing the TikTok ban, despite warnings that it would be challenged in court.
The closest they got to derailing the effort was when the Montana House narrowly defeated an amendment that would have rewritten the bill as a general prohibition on social media companies sharing data with foreign adversaries.
After the bill passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed it, TikTok and a group of its users sued to overturn the law. NetChoice and Chamber of Progress submitted a joint amicus brief in the case siding with TikTok.
A U.S. District judge in Missoula recently granted a preliminary injunction blocking the law from taking effect in January, noting a “pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment that permeates the State’s case.”