China’s TikTok is potentially facing much more difficulties in the United States, after a US state confirmed it will ban the app on personal devices in the territory.

Reuters reported that Montana Governor Greg Gianforte on Wednesday has signed legislation to ban Chinese-owned TikTok in the state, in order to protect residents from alleged intelligence gathering by Chinese intelligence services.

The use of TikTok is already banned by federal employees in 34 out of 50 US states, but Montana has now become the first US state to ban the popular short video app.

Montana had already banned the app on government devices last December.

TikTok owner ByteDance. Image credit: ByteDance

TikTok ban

Essentially the Montana legislation will ban TikTok from personal devices, and make it illegal for Apple and Google app stores to offer TikTok within the state.

That said it does not ban people who already have TikTok, from using it, and the legislation will not impose any penalties on individuals within Montana using the app, meaning residents should still be able to download or update it, providing they are in a neighbouring US state.

So the penalties included in the Montana legislation will not apply to individual users, but the penalties will apply to companies. This means that firms in Montana that break the law face penalties of up to $10,000 (£8,012), which would be enforced by Montana’s Department of Justice.

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.

Finally, Apple and Google, could also face fines of $10,000 per violation, per day, if they violate the ban by allowing TikTok to be downloaded in Montana from their app stores.

According to Reuters, the Montana ban is to take effect 1 January 2024, and is almost certain to face legal challenges.

TikTok owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, did not respond to a Reuters question asking if it planned legal action.

However TikTok issued an earlier statement 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.”

Teenager usage

The upcoming Montana ban does represent an interesting issue, as TikTok has over 150 million users in the US alone.

That said, Montana is a largely rural US state and only has a population of just over 1 million people.

TikTok is mostly widely used by teenagers. Indeed, Reuters pointed to the Pew Research Center as finding that 67 percent of US teenagers aged 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16 percent of all teens say they use the app almost constantly.

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

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.

But some are concerned that banning TikTok is unconstitutional.

For example the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) slammed the Montana law as “unconstitutional”.

“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, was quoted by Reuters as saying in a statement.

TikTok is also being supported by free speech allies including several Democratic members of Congress, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and First Amendment groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

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.

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

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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