Montana is the first state to ‘ban’ TikTok, but it’s complicated

The law is scheduled to go into effect next year, although it remains unclear how it could actually be enforced.
TikTok brand logo on the screen of Apple iPhone on top of laptop keyboard
Critics argue a ban on TikTok is a violation of the First Amendment. Deposit Photos

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill into law on Wednesday banning TikTok within the entire state, all-but-ensuring a legal, political, and sheer logistical battle over the popular social media platform’s usage and accessibility.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Gianforte claimed the new law is an effort to “protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party.” Critics and security experts, however, argue the app’s blacklisting infringes on residents’ right to free speech, and would do little to actually guard individuals’ private data.

“This unconstitutional ban undermines the free speech and association of Montana TikTok users and intrudes on TikTok’s interest in disseminating its users’ videos,” the digital rights advocacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation argued in a statement posted to Twitter,  calling the new law a “blatant violation of the First Amendment.”

[Related: Why some US lawmakers want to ban TikTok.]

According to the EFF and other advocacy groups, Montana’s TikTok ban won’t actually protect residents’ from companies and bad actors who can still scrape and subsequently monetize their private data. Instead, advocates repeated their urge for legislators to pass comprehensive data privacy laws akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations. Similar laws have passed in states like California, Colorado, and Utah, but continue to stall at the federal level.

“We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana,”TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter stated on Wednesday.

Montana’s new law is primarily focused on TikTok’s accessibility via app stores from tech providers like Apple and Google, which are directed to block all downloads of the social media platform once the ban goes into effect at the beginning of 2024. Montanans are not subject to the $10,000 per day fine if they still access TikTok—rather, the penalty is levied at companies such as Google, Apple, and TikTok’s owner, ByteDance.

[Related: The best VPNs of 2023.]

That said, there is no clear or legal way to force Montanans to delete the app if it is already downloaded to their phones. Likewise, proxy services such as VPNs hypothetically could easily skirt the ban. As The Guardian noted on Thursday, the ability for Montana to actually enforce a wholesale ban on the app is ostensibly impossible, barring the state following censorship tactics used by nations such as China.

“With this ban, Governor Gianforte and the Montana legislature have 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,” Keegan Medrano, policy director at the ACLU of Montana, said in a statement. “We will never trade our First Amendment rights for cheap political points.”