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Montana governor bans TikTok. But can the state enforce the law?


NEW YORK (AP) — Montana Governor Greg Gianforte on Wednesday signed into law a first-of-its-kind bill making it illegal for TikTok to operate in the state, sparking a potential legal battle with the company amid a litany of questions about whether the state can enforce the law.

The new rules in Montana will have far-reaching effects beyond TikTok bans already in place on government-issued devices in nearly half of the states and the US federal government. According to company spokesman Jamal Brown, there are 200,000 TikTok users in Montana and 6,000 businesses using the video-sharing platform.

Here’s what you need to know:


Proponents of the law in Montana argue that the Chinese government could collect US user data from TikTok and use the platform to send pro-Beijing misinformation or messages to the public.

That echoes the arguments of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the US Senate, as well as the heads of the FBI and CIA, all of whom have said TikTok could pose a threat to national security because its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance operates under Chinese law.

Critics have pointed to China’s 2017 national intelligence law that forces companies to cooperate with the country’s governments for state intelligence work. Another Chinese law, implemented in 2014, has similar mandates.

TikTok says it was never asked to hand over its data, and would not if asked.


The law bans downloading TikTok in the state and fines any “entity” – an app store or TikTok – $10,000 a day for every time someone opens TikTok, is “offered the opportunity” to access it, or downloads.

That means Apple and Google, which operate app stores on Apple and Android devices, are liable for any violations. Sanctions do not apply to users.

The statewide ban won’t go into effect until January 2024. It would be invalid if the social media platform is sold to a company that is not located in “a country designated by the federal government as a foreign adversary.”

The governor indicated that he wanted to expand the bill to other social media apps to address some of the bill’s “technical and legal issues”. But the legislature adjourned before sending him the bill, meaning he couldn’t table his amendments.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has pointed to technology being used to restrict online sports betting apps as a way to restrict TikTok in the state. Those violations can be reported by anyone. And once the state determines that a breach has occurred, it will send a cease and desist letter to the company involved, said Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for Knudsen’s office. He said different companies use different methods of compliance and it is up to them “not to allow their apps to work in Montana and other states where they are not legal.”


Cybersecurity experts say that other than avoiding the fine, there is nothing to induce the companies involved to comply and that it will be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to adequately enforce the law.

First, the US has nothing comparable to the type of control countries like China have about what their citizens consult on the internet. In addition, internet providers are out of the picture.

Before the Montana bill passed, lawmakers rewrote parts of the bill to knock it off the hook after an AT&T lobbyist said at a hearing in February that the legislation was “not workable” to go into effect.


Apple and Google have not spoken out against the law. But a representative for TechNet, the trade group that counts the two tech giants as members, has said that app stores are unable to “geofen” apps across states and that it would be impossible to prevent TikTok from being launched in Montana. downloaded. . The group also said that the responsibility should be on an app to determine where it can work, not an app store.

Telecom analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics says he believes the app stores would have the ability to enforce the law, but it would be cumbersome to implement and full of loopholes. Apple and Google’s address-based billing can be bypassed with prepaid cards and IP geolocation can be easily masked by using a VPN service, which can change IP addresses and allow users to bypass content restrictions, said mobile security expert Will Strafach , the founder of Guardian, who creates a privacy protection app for Apple devices.

Oded Vanunu, head of product vulnerability research at the cybersecurity firm Check Point, agreed that it would be difficult for app stores to isolate a single state from downloading an app. He suggested it would be more viable for TikTok to comply, as it controls the software and can “adjust settings based on users’ geographic location or IP addresses”.


When users allow TikTok to collect their location information, it can track a person to at least 3 square kilometers (1.16 square miles) from their actual location. With that feature turned off, TikTok can still collect approximate location information — such as the region, city, or zip code a user is in — based on device or network information, such as an IP address.

But similar to the app stores, cybersecurity experts note that any enforcement measures the company implements can be easily circumvented with a VPN, and attempts to use IP geolocation can lead to other problems.

David Choffnes, executive director of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute at Northeastern University, said mobile carriers could use the same types of IP addresses for multiple states, which could mean someone who isn’t in Montana could be falsely blocked from accessing it. using TikTok.


Probably a legal battle.

Knudsen, Montana’s attorney general, has already said he expects the law to go to court.

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a prepared statement Wednesday that the law infringes on Montanan’s free speech and is illegal.

“We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue to use TikTok to express themselves, make a living and find community as we continue to work to defend the rights of our users inside and outside Montana,” Oberwetter said.

Oberwetter declined to say whether the company will sue, but described some of the legal issues at play. She argued that Montana is trying to override US foreign policy by claiming the bill addresses a risk to national security. She said foreign policy and national security laws are not made at the state level.

NetChoice, a trade group representing TikTok and other tech companies, says the bill violates the First Amendment and “bill of achievement” laws that prohibit the government from imposing a penalty on a specific entity without a formal process.


AP Technology Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Boston.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.