Lawmakers in Washington are pushing for an outright ban on TikTok on U.S. soil. Montana might beat them.
The state legislature went further than any other body in the United States to pass a ban on a popular Chinese video app that faces scrutiny over whether it handed over sensitive data on Americans to Beijing. Montana introduced a bill to block the app in February, and the state Senate approved it last month. The state legislature is scheduled to consider the bill on Thursday, and it is likely to pass after two more votes.
Along the way, the proposal hit snags. A major internet provider said it couldn’t block TikTok in Montana, prompting lawmakers to rewrite the legislation. A trade group funded by Apple and Google that runs app stores that will be banned from carrying the app has also asserted that it is impossible for the companies to block access to TikTok within a single state.
Lobbying has been intense. Critics of China appeared at hearings in support of the bill. Fighting back, TikTok has urged its users to oppose the legislation by calling and emailing Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gianforte said he would “carefully consider any bill the legislature sends to his desk,” noting that he has already banned TikTok on state equipment.
The fight in Montana is a preview of what the U.S. could face nationwide if lawmakers or the White House try to ban TikTok across the country. Even if legislation to ban the app passes, enforcing a ban would be technically difficult and would involve companies across the digital economy.
TikTok could provoke a backlash among its 150 million U.S. users. Any ban could face legal challenges, with courts rejecting President Donald J. Trump’s attempt to block TikTok in 2020.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who authored the bill, acknowledged that implementing a TikTok ban in states would be difficult.
“We have no illusions that this will not be challenged“ he said in an interview. “I think that’s the next frontier in First Amendment jurisprudence, and it probably has to come from the U.S. Supreme Court. I think that’s probably where it’s headed.”
The proposed ban would take effect in 2024.
Montana’s move is part of an intensifying tech cold war between the U.S. and China, with TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, caught in the middle.
Last month, members of Congress grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zhou for about five hours about whether the app could provide data to the Chinese government or be used to spread propaganda. Over the past five years, U.S. officials have also cut off Chinese telecommunications companies from key suppliers, subsidized U.S. manufacturers to compete with Asian chipmakers and forced a Chinese company to sell dating app Grindr.
Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokeswoman, said in a statement that there are “thousands of TikTok creators and users in Montana” who “deserve to be responsible for everything that affects them and their livelihoods.” have a place in the conversation”. TikTok has denied providing user data to the Chinese government.
Knutson, a Republican, said his team has received many complaints from parents that TikTok’s content involves drugs, suicide or pornography. As the state’s legislative session looms this year, his office is flirting with the idea of a blanket ban on the app.
The political environment favors a ban. State politicians say Montanans are already protecting their personal privacy. Then, in early February, a Chinese spy balloon flew over the state, drawing national attention and heightening concerns about espionage by Beijing.
“Frankly, the Chinese did us a favor by floating a spy balloon over Montana,” Mr. Knutson said. Republican state Sen. Shelley Vance introduced the bill on Feb. 20 after his office drafted it.
The first version of the proposal includes fines for internet service providers and app stores that helped distribute the app, as well as fines for TikTok, which continues to operate in the state. Panel deliberation on February 27.
At that hearing, an AT&T lobbyist stood up and announced that the company opposed the bill. He said it “doesn’t work” for internet service providers to implement a TikTok ban. He said AT&T is discussing a change with the bill’s sponsors that would allow the company to withdraw its objection to the measure.
When the state Senate passed the legislation a week later, lawmakers removed any reference to internet providers such as AT&T.
By March, TikTok was hiring two lobbyists in the state and running ads featuring small Montana businesses using TikTok. The app has also started mobilizing its users.
“We need your help to stop the Montana Legislature from taking away your right to use TikTok,” the company said in an email posted to a user feed. The company provided users with a pre-written email they could send to Mr. Gianforte, who opposed the bill. According to another post on TikTok, it sent users a similar warning via a notification within its mobile app.
The bill, which was considered by the state House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on March 28, still requires Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their stores.
App stores often take down products. A ban on TikTok could also prevent stores from distributing updates to the app, slowly choking off service for users who have already downloaded it. But at the hearing, TechNet representatives said it was “impossible” to restrict TikTok state by state. TechNet is an industry group that includes Apple and Google.
Apple and Google declined to comment.
Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr said in an interview that TikTok users could disguise their location and continue to access the app even after the ban, which could also be difficult to enforce in border towns where internet connections can involve cellular networks. State Tower.
But skepticism about TikTok was ingrained in the hearing. Keith Krach, a former business executive behind some of the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline Chinese companies, testified that he would not let his 11-year-old twins near the app. He said it was “masquerading as candy, but it was actually cocaine”.
“Do you agree with me that TikTok is the music played by the Pied Piper to steal the hearts and minds of this generation?” asked Republican Rep. Neil Duram, while sitting with him. Ms. Zephyr nearby burst out laughing.
“I’m a little bit unsure what you mean,” replied Keegan Medrano, policy director for the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bill. The post they exchanged quickly garnered 70,000 likes on TikTok. Mr Durham then asked Mr Medrano if he agreed with “this generation” choosing the Chinese Communist Party “as their new god” via TikTok.
Mr Medrano said in an interview that the bill could have an impact on speech, potentially making it harder to discuss topics such as “alternative views on vaccines” or “revolutionary moments in other countries”.
Mr. Knudsen said the bill was about “a hostile superpower collecting personal information from Montanans” and he was ready for a legal fight.
“I think these are issues that may require the court to get involved,” he said. “We’re not randomly hacking this legislation without any consideration.”