First Lawsuit From TikTok Users Over Montana Ban

Five TikTok content creators in Montana file a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the US state’s ban on short video platform

The US State of Montana is facing the first of what is likely to be many legal challenges to the legislation it signed this week.

On Wednesday Montana Governor Greg Gianforte had signed legislation to ban TikTok in the US state, effective 1 January 2024.

The use of TikTok is already banned by federal employees in 34 out of 50 US states (as well as the entire US federal government), but Montana has now become the first US state to ban app stores offering the app in Montana.

ByteDance, TikTok
TikTok owner ByteDance. Image credit: ByteDance

User lawsuit

It is understood the Montana legislation contains penalties that will apply to companies. This means that firms in Montana that break the law face penalties of up to $10,000 (£8,012) per day, which would be enforced by Montana’s Department of Justice.

Apple and Google for example can be fined if they violate the ban by allowing TikTok to be downloaded in Montana from their app stores.

And the Montana legalisation also means that TikTok itself could face fines for each violation and additional fines of $10,000 per day if it violates the ban.

Reuters has now reported that five TikTok users are seeking to block the Montana law, which makes it unlawful for the Google and Apple app stores to offer TikTok within the state.

The lawsuit, reportedly filed in US District Court in Montana late on Wednesday, names the state’s attorney general, Austin Knudsen, who is charged with enforcing the law.

The TikTok users reportedly argue the state seeks to “exercise powers over national security that Montana does not have and to ban speech Montana may not suppress.”

The lawsuit said users believe the law violates their First Amendment rights.

“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes,” the lawsuit reportedly states.

According to the lawsuit, the five plaintiffs, all Montana residents, include a designer of sustainable swimwear who uses TikTok to promote her company and engage with customers; a former US Marine Corps sergeant who uses TikTok to connect with other veterans; a rancher who uses TikTok to share content about her outdoor adventures; a student who is studying applied human physiology and shares content about her outdoor adventures; and a man who shares humorous videos on TikTok and earns revenue from the content he posts.

Ban responses

But Montana is expecting the legal challenges.

Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for attorney general Knudsen, said the state was ready for lawsuits. “We expected a legal challenge and are fully prepared to defend the law,” she said.

TikTok meanwhile has already condemned the move by Montana, saying that the new law “infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok,” and said it will “continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana.”

Montana claims it took the decision to ban TikTok in order to protect residents from alleged intelligence gathering by Chinese intelligence services.

Espionage fears

In March, a congressional committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for five hours about whether the Chinese government could access user data or influence what Americans see on the app.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew. Image credit: TikTok
TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew. Image credit: TikTok

Following that, US lawmakers from both major parties signalled renewed support for a bill that would allow the White House to impose nationwide controls or bans on imported technologies such as TikTok.

TikTok for its part is working on an initiative called Project Texas, which creates a standalone entity to store American user data in the US on servers operated by American tech giant Oracle.

However US lawmakers felt that Project Texas did not offer sufficient protection against Chinese laws that require companies to make user data accessible to Chinese intelligence services.

TikTok has previously said it would never share US user data with the Chinese government.

But a former employee is now suing ByteDance, alleging that Beijing had “supreme access” to all user data, and that ByteDance had allegedly made access to the data available to Chinese authorities.

ByteDance meanwhile is being urged to divest itself from TikTok, to help address US national security concerns.