TikTok and Free Speech Groups Appear Poised for Legal Fight Over Montana Ban

A legal battle over First Amendment rights appears to have erupted on Thursday after Montana banned TikTok from operating as of January 1. This would be the first such ban in the United States.

The ban, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday, sparked protests from TikTok, civil liberties and digital rights groups, and angry TikTok users, calling it an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Montana legislator and Republican Gianforte says the ban is necessary to prevent personal information of Americans from falling into the hands of the Chinese government. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

According to the law, TikTok will be fined for operating the app in the state, and app store providers such as Google and Apple will also be fined if TikTok becomes available for download in Montana. become.

Neither TikTok nor major civil rights groups announced plans for a lawsuit on Thursday. TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Overwetter declined to comment on the company’s potential lawsuit.

But Overwetter said Wednesday after the law was signed that the ban violated the First Amendment rights of people in Montana, and that the company “continues to work to protect the rights of its users. ‘ said. He said on Thursday that the 2020 federal ban would not stand up to legal scrutiny and Montana had no viable plans to enforce the ban.

Overvetter also pointed to statements from civil society and digital groups raising similar concerns.

Ramya Krishnan, an attorney at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said the Constitution protects the right of Americans to access social media platforms of their choice. To justify a ban, Krishnan said Montana would have to show that privacy and safety concerns are real and cannot be addressed in narrower ways.

“I don’t think TikTok is going to sue yet, but I think it’s likely they will,” Krishnan said. “Because this is a dramatic and unconstitutional violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights, we are definitely considering the possibility of getting involved in some way.”

NetChoice, an industry group that counts TikTok as a member and has sued in the past to block state laws targeting tech companies, also said in a statement that the ban was unconstitutional. NetChoice has “no plans at this time to file a lawsuit” to challenge the law, said Christa Chavez, a spokeswoman for the group.

The Montana law comes after the federal government and more than 20 states have banned TikTok on government devices in recent months. Lawmakers and intelligence officials have said TikTok’s ownership could leave sensitive user data in the hands of the Chinese government. They also claimed the app could be used to spread propaganda. TikTok says it has never been asked to provide U.S. user data to the Chinese government, nor has it ever provided it.

“Many have hypothesized that China might demand that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, turn over data on Americans, or use TikTok to somehow spread disinformation. “Neither Montana nor the U.S. government has pointed to any evidence that China is actually doing that.” Krishnan said. “This is a problem because speculative harm cannot justify a blanket ban on communication platforms, especially those used by hundreds of thousands of Montanas every day.”

In addition to potential legal battles, many experts questioned whether the law could be realistically enforced. Internet users can use virtual private network software to disguise their location. Individuals in border towns in Montana may be able to access TikTok and other mobile apps through cell phone towers in neighboring states.

Emily Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general, said in an email that technology exists to restrict the use of apps within certain locations. The technology, known as geofencing, is “already in use across the gaming industry,” and is also regulated by the state’s Department of Justice, Cantrell said.

“A basic internet search will bring up companies that offer location compliance,” she said. If a company fails to comply with the ban, the agency “will investigate and hold the offending company accountable according to the law,” she continued.

The law holds TikTok, Apple and Google responsible for enforcing the ban. According to the law, TikTok could be fined $10,000 for each violation of the ban, and another $10,000 for each continued violation. Apple and Google will face similar fines for allowing app downloads in the state.

The ban is being considered by state legislatures, but a trade group representing Apple and Google said it would be impossible for the two companies to restrict access to apps within a single state.

“Apps should be responsible for determining where app stores can operate, not app stores,” said David Edmondson, vice president of TechNet, the trade group representing app stores, in a statement Thursday. .

Google and Apple declined to comment.

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