AMAC Exclusive – By Neil Banerji
Last month, Montana became the first state to completely ban TikTok over concerns that the Chinese Communist Party could be using the popular social media app to spy on American citizens. Despite a lawsuit from TikTok, Republicans in Montana are standing by the new law as leaders in other states – both Republican and Democrat – weigh bans of their own.
The Montana ban, which Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law on May 18, is set to take full effect next January. It imposes a fine of up to $10,000 per day on platforms that offer the app on their marketplaces, such as the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.
The law was predictably met with a lawsuit four days later from TikTok, which said it was “challenging Montana’s unconstitutional TikTok ban to protect our business and the hundreds of thousands of TikTok users in Montana.” The lawsuit alleges that Montana’s ban violates the First Amendment rights of users and singles out the company “for harsh penalties based on speculative concerns about TikTok’s data security and content moderation practices.”
However, Montana Republicans have stood by the ban, with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen saying last week that he is “not interested in recognizing that the Chinese Communist Party has free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
Knudson further pointed out that TikTok is the only widely popular social media app that does not allow users to opt out of data sharing. “TikTok is scanning all of your photographs and your videos for intelligence, military intelligence,” he said. “So this is a very dangerous application that’s collecting an awful lot of data and transmitting it straight to the Chinese Communist Party via [TikTok parent company] ByteDance.”
Although Montana is the first state to issue a blanket ban on TikTok, more than 30 other states have banned the app from government devices after Nebraska became the first state to do so in August 2020.
The state-level push to ban TikTok gained significant momentum late last year following revelations that ByteDance employees had inappropriately obtained data on U.S. users. China’s 2017 national security law requires all Chinese internet companies – including ByteDance – to share all such user data with the Chinese Communist Party upon request.
A congressional hearing in March and a Department of Justice investigation have created more problems for TikTok. In addition to unearthing more concerns about TikTok’s data sharing with the CCP, the congressional hearing also highlighted reports that the app’s algorithm promotes harmful content for young American users while promoting largely educational content for young Chinese users. The DOJ investigation has found that ByteDance employees illegally gained access to the IP addresses and contact data of several U.S. users, including two journalists.
Although most of the states taking action against TikTok are led by Republicans, several Democrat states have joined in as well. In January, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order prohibiting the app on most state devices. Delaware and Maryland also have TikTok bans for state devices, and similar legislation is currently making its way through the legislatures in California, New York, and Vermont.
Cracking down on data collection by TikTok has also enjoyed bipartisan support at the national level. Congress included a TikTok ban for federal devices as part of a spending bill passed late last year, which Biden signed into law.
However, not everyone on the left has been a fan of the growing wave of anti-TikTok legislation. Following Montana’s ban, the ACLU declared, “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.” Far-left Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who boasts 763,000 followers on the platform – have also spoken out against banning TikTok.
But opposition to banning the platform has been largely drowned out by a growing consensus in Washington and state capitals alike that the country needs to take a tougher stance against China amid escalating international tensions.
The biggest news to watch out for on this front in the months ahead are escalating efforts to issue a Montana-style blanket ban at the federal level. In March, Biden suggested that he may push for such action if ByteDance does not divest itself from the app. Several bills which would ban the app on personal devices have also been introduced in Congress, despite skepticism about the legal and practical feasibility of such a feat.
In cracking down on TikTok, Republicans have found an issue with rare broad bipartisan appeal. If a general TikTok ban does become law, it will be thanks to the action and foresight of leaders like Governor Gianforte – something voters will not soon forget.
Neil Banerji is a proud Las Vegas resident and former student at the University of Oxford. In his spare time, he enjoys reading Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke.