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As the government weighs a national TikTok ban, Montana lawmakers passed on Friday a bill requiring app stores to stop carrying the app. The governor is expected to sign the measure.
The action goes the farthest of any state that has passed legislation relating to TikTok in preventing users from downloading the Chinese-owned video app. Under the bill, passed by a vote of 54-43, app stores will be prohibited from offering the app to Montana users, though people who already have the app can continue using it. TikTok will also not be allowed to operate in the state. It will go into effect in 2024.
In a statement, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said “the bill’s champions have admitted that they have no feasible plan for operationalizing this attempt to censor American voices.”
The measure is likely to be challenged. TikTok underscored that whether the measure is permitted under the constitution “will be decided by the courts.”
The looming legal battle can be seen as a test case of obstacles the government might face if it passes a national TikTok ban. In addition to being difficult to enforce as it requires cooperation from third-party companies across the digital economy, the legislation likely implicates First Amendment concerns. Courts have blocked previous attempts in 2020 to block TikTok.
Lawmakers have offered no evidence that TikTok has provided American user data to the Chinese government or that it’s been directed to influence the content users see on the platform.
The legislation points to national security risks because the app, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, is under the influence of China. It cites concerns that the app is collecting data on users in violation of users’ right to privacy.
“The People’s Republic of China exercises control and oversight over ByteDance, like other Chinese corporations, and can direct the company to share user information, including real-time physical locations of users,” reads the bill.
The measure also cites TikTok failing to remove and promoting “content that directs minors to engage in dangerous activities.”
An initial version of the bill looked to force internet service providers to block TikTok and included fines if they helped distribute the app. It was later removed.
It remains unclear how the ban can be enforced. Under the bill, fines will be levied against app stores that continue to offer the app past 2024 as well as TikTok.
Passage of the bill comes less than a month after TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled by lawmakers on national security concerns the app posed. He largely struggled to alleviate concerns that the company poses a risk, escalating calls for an outright ban or forced sale of the app.
Chinese officials have said they’d oppose a forced sale of TikTok because it’d involve the export of technology that has to be approved by the government. As a private company, 60 percent of TikTok is owned by global institutional investors, 20 percent by its founders and 20 percent by employees. It has five board members, three of whom are American.
There are several bills working their way through Congress that would take action against the app, including a measure backed by the White House that would establish a unified framework for reviewing and addressing foreign technology. Under the measure, the Commerce Department would have the authority to review, block or otherwise mitigate a range of transactions involving foreign information and communications technology products and services.
In 2020, a federal judge blocked a government directive requiring Apple and Google to remove Tencent’s WeChat from their app stores. U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler found that the order could infringe on users’ First Amendment rights by making the app unusable. She stressed that the app is vital to communication.
Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
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