[PBS NewsHour]

What Montana’s TikTok ban means for the popular social media app and its users

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WASHINGTON (NewsHour) — Montana became the first state to ban TikTok, citing fears that the app’s Chinese-owned parent company could be providing Americans’ data to the Chinese government.

Montana could be a testing ground for other state and national leaders considering bans on the nation’s fastest-growing app.

NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz discussed the latest with Bobby Allyn of NPR.

Read the Full Transcript

Amna Nawaz:

Montana became the first state to ban TikTok yesterday, citing fears that the app’s Chinese-owned parent company could be providing Americans’ data to the Chinese government.

Montana could be a testing ground for other state and national leaders also considering bans on the nation’s fastest-growing app.

The first-of-its-kind law bans mobile app stores from hosting TikTok on their platforms in Montana. Violations could mean fine for the companies and for TikTok if someone is — quote — “offered the ability to access the platform or download the app.”

The bill’s signing came after months of debate in the state legislature, with proponents arguing that the app and its-Chinese based parent company, ByteDance, is a threat to national security.

State Rep. Brandon Ler (R-MT):

This app steals data from users, and its ability to share that data with the Chinese Communist Party is unacceptable and infringes on Montanans’ rights to privacy.

State Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-MT):

There is nothing stopping the social media company based in America from collecting the same data, selling it to a Chinese organization, and then them being held to that company.

Amna Nawaz:

The company has repeatedly denied it shares user information with the Chinese government. A TikTok spokeswoman push backed against the ban in a statement, saying the law — quote — “infringes on the First Amendment rights” of Montana residents and that the company will — quote — “defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana.”

While Montana is the first day to outright ban the app, it is not the only one to take action. TikTok has been banned on federal government devices since late last year. And, in March, the Biden administration urged TikTok to divest itself from its Chinese owners or face a nationwide ban.

That same month, U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled the company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, in a heated hearing.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA):

Your platform should be banned.

Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL):

TikTok needs to be an American company with American values.

Shou Zi Chew, CEO, TikTok:

ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.

A smartphone displays the TikTok logo with a backdrop of TikTok logos
Amna Nawaz:

Chinese officials have said they would firmly oppose a forced sale. Montana’s ban is scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2024. But free speech advocates are expected to appeal before then.

In a statement, the ACLU of Montana said the governor and the state’s legislature — quote — “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.”

And, late today, a group of TikTok content creators filed suit against Montana in an effort to block the state’s ban of the app.

Following these developments closely is Bobby Allyn. He covers technology and business for NPR, and joins us now.

Bobby, before we get into some of the legal battles that are surely ahead, I want to talk to you about Montana’s move here specifically targeting one app within the state’s borders. Have we ever seen anything like that?

Bobby Allyn, NPR:

No, there’s really no precedent for this.

And when I have talked to cybersecurity and tech experts, they were really stunned that this happened at all. I mean, if you think about it, it’s going to be really, really hard to enforce, because the way that this technology operates is, if you take out your phone, and you pull up TikTok, it pings a cell phone tower that then talks to TikTok servers.

Just imagine you’re in a border town, say, in Wyoming or Idaho, and you’re near Montana, and you pull up TikTok, and it’s pinged to the server, and you can’t access it because of this ban. That’s going to put you in a pretty weird and awkward situation. So there’s a lot of technical — like, it’s just going to be a really hard thing to really enforce because of that.

Amna Nawaz:

It’s also interesting. They’re not going after users. They’re going after companies. They’re holding companies and the platforms responsible, which would also seem to imply that Google and Apple would have to comply and cooperate for this enforcement to work in any way. Do we know that they would want to cooperate?

Bobby Allyn:

That’s a great question. So Apple and Google haven’t said anything about the Montana TikTok ban, but the penalties would be assessed to them. If they let this go into effect January 1, if they don’t do anything about it, they could be fined $10,000 a day if they don’t block TikTok from being downloaded on the Google Play and the Apple App Store.

So the onus is really on these tech companies. And the question is, are they going to comply? Are they going to resist? Of course, this is really going to play out in the courts. But this is really sort of pitting a huge war between Montana state officials and Apple and Google potentially.

Amna Nawaz:

So let’s talk about what’s going to play out in the courts now.

We have the first lawsuit, five TikTok content creators suing to overturn Montana’s law. Is there any precedent here that tells us how the courts might view this issue?

Bobby Allyn:

So it’s going to be a balancing act between the national security concerns and the First Amendment rights of TikTok users and TikTok creators.

And I think courts have said historically that expressing yourself politically or otherwise on a social media platform like TikTok is protected speech under the First Amendment. That said, there are some ways in which the government can restrict speech.

And it’s if an app or a social media platform is found to be providing material support to terrorists, for instance. You can put restrictions on speech in that kind of situation. Now, supporters of TikTok say there just isn’t any convincing evidence that TikTok poses a national security threat and a lot of the China fears, the fears that the Chinese government can use TikTok to spy or to launch disinformation campaigns, that a lot of that is in the theoretical.

So this is really going to come down to the federal judge that takes a look at this case and decides, is it more of a national security threat, or should we protect the free speech rights of TikTok users?

Amna Nawaz:

So, Bobby, even if it’s not fully enforceable, even if it’s struck down in the courts, are you already seeing any kind of impact when it comes to usage as a result of the ban?

Bobby Allyn:

You know, you are.

I’m seeing TikTok users who have large followings, influencers on TikTok saying, follow me on YouTube. Let’s go to Instagram. Let’s go to Reddit. Let’s go to some other platform that is going to be safe come January 2024.

Now, TikTok is saying, listen, everyone in Montana, don’t worry. We’re going to block this in the courts.We’re going to make sure that this ban never even takes effect. So TikTok is encouraging TikTok users to just go about your day as you usually do, use the platform as much as you want.

But users are already looking for alternatives, because this is real. The governor signed a law banning TikTok within the borders of Montana. If you’re someone who derives all your income from TikTok, you’re going to be pretty concerned about this. And some of those creators took to the courts today and sued Montana over this, saying, you are depriving us of both our ability to be freely expressive on this platform and depriving us of income.

Amna Nawaz:

We have heard a number of other leaders both at the state and national level express similar concerns, national security concerns over TikTok.

Do you see other states following suit, doing what Montana has done?

Bobby Allyn:

Now, we saw states ban TikTok on government-issued devices.

And after a few did, dozens followed suit. So I think it’s fair to say, in governor — in states that have governors that are both Republicans and Democrats, this issue about an ascendant China, about China being a real national security threat is a bipartisan concern. So I think a lot of states and the Biden White House are going to be watching to see how this plays out in the courts.

And if the courts do approve this Montana TikTok ban, you’re going to believe, for sure, that other governors are going to follow suit. And the Biden White House might even be watching to see, hey, if the courts allow the Montana ban to go through, maybe we can push a national TikTok ban, which is something that top national security officials in the White House have floated.

Amna Nawaz:

All right, that is Bobby Allyn, covers technology and business for NPR, joining us tonight.

Bobby, thank you, good to talk to you.

Bobby Allyn:

Thank you.