On April 14, Montana’s state Legislature passed a bill, SB419, that would effectively ban the app TikTok from operating in the state. It has yet to be signed by Gov. Gianforte, who earlier this year banned TikTok from all state government-owned devices and urged the Montana University System to block the app.
MUS did so — a decision that has made following the issue more difficult for students, as any TikTok press releases or comments issued through their own website now cannot be accessed on University WiFi.
Many other states are following suit in their attempts to ban TikTok, and even the federal government is pursuing a TikTok ban that’s been criticized by social media professionals and First Amendment advocates alike.
Montana is the first state to pass an outright ban on TikTok, though other states have passed restrictions. For example, in March, Utah governor Spencer Cox signed legislation restricting social media usage, including TikTok, for minors. This legislation will go into effect next March, though it’s unclear how it will be enforced. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok via executive order, but three federal courts enjoined his order.
Montana’s bill would not punish TikTok users. Instead, it would penalize TikTok itself and any app store that allowed users to download it in Montana with a fine of $10,000 per violation, per day.
Proponents of the bill cite security concerns as the driving factor for banning the app. TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, which proponents fear will use TikTok to collect data from Montanans.
“We know beyond a doubt that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is operating as a surveillance arm of the Chinese Communist Party and gathers information about Americans against their will through TikTok,” said Shelly Vance, the bill’s sponsor, in its first committee hearing.
TikTok does collect user data, according to its Terms of Service.
“I strongly believe that no foreign country should have access to the data of American consumers, let alone a country that’s had surveillance issues with the United States recently,” said UM sophomore Bradley Roscoe, who is in favor of the ban.
However, many have pointed out that this is not unique to TikTok.
“Almost every app we use tracks us,” said UM freshman Delaney Foley. “It’s crazy to think that there would only be Chinese surveillance on TikTok and not other apps.”
It is not unprecedented for governments to track the IPs of Americans and use geofencing to target them for propaganda. For instance, the Georgia Army National Guard recently unveiled plans to use location tracking to direct targeted military recruitment ads at high school students.
Foley uses TikTok for entertainment and to pass time. She follows comedy, guitar tutorials, makeup and band accounts.
“I frankly think there are much, MUCH larger things we should be paying attention to, and using taxpayer money for, than a threat that no one can truly prove,” said Jazz Wiersma, a fourth-year flute performance major. Wiersma has been using TikTok for about two years for relaxation and education.
TikTok can also be used as a marketing platform for small businesses. Missoula artist Brianca Thornton runs a business, Bellis Botanicals, where she sells polymer clay and resin art. Much of her marketing is through social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. According to a poll she uses to ask online customers how they found her business, about 40-50% of her online sales come from TikTok.
Thornton said her sales would take a hit if she wasn’t able to use TikTok. She’s spread across a few different media platforms and also sells in physical locations by selling to shops or going to markets, so a ban wouldn’t spell the end of her business. But she knows other Montana creators who are popular on TikTok and said that a ban would be devastating to their business.
Restricting app use using geolocation is not unprecedented — it’s how the Montana Lottery ensures people only place wagers on its mobile app from authorized retailers. But that restriction is done with the cooperation of the platform being accessed, and TikTok is not remotely on board with SB419. In a statement made after the bill passed the senate, the platform opposed the bill and urged TikTok users to call on their representatives to oppose the ban.
“Montana’s bill isn’t about making users safe, it’s about unilaterally restricting the freedom of Montanans based on nothing more than fears and falsehoods,” the statement said.
Any bill restricting a platform will inevitably run into First Amendment scrutiny, and SB419 has made its case harder by specifically singling out certain content on TikTok as a reason for the ban. The bill contains a section about the dangerous content TikTok supposedly hosts and encourages people to emulate through its algorithms, such as “throwing objects at moving vehicles” and “cooking chicken in NyQuil.”
Any restriction on speech that’s based on the content of the speech, rather than the time, place and manner it is expressed is subject to a higher burden of proof of compelling state interest.
“I believe the ban is overbroad and would not pass the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment,” said Montana First Amendment lawyer Mike Meloy.
“SB 419 is censorship—it would unjustly cut Montanans off from a platform where they speak out and exchange ideas everyday, and it would set an alarming precedent for excessive government control over how Montanans use the internet,” the ACLU of Montana wrote in a coalition letter.
Thornton and Wiersma both said they haven’t seen any dangerous activity promoted on TikTok.
“I have seen some dangerous activities on my ‘for you’ page and I myself have never been tempted to imitate them, but it makes you worry about the kids that see it and want to try,” Foley said. “But once again, other apps have had such problems like the blue whale challenge that started on other apps like Facebook.”
Roscoe has also seen dangerous activity on TikTok but said it’s a social media issue not unique to the platform.
Take NyQuil chicken, cited in the bill as an example of TikTok’s danger. This meme actually originated on 4chan in 2017, and made the rounds through Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and YouTube before finally becoming a TikTok challenge in 2020. Searching “NyQuil chicken” on TikTok now redirects to a warning message.
If TikTok were effectively banned in the state, it’s unclear how Montana-based journalists would be able to fact-check government claims about the content hosted on the platform.
The bill offers no instructions for how it would practically be implemented. Thornton doesn’t think it will be successful and suggested it might actually increase TikTok use in Montana, as the recent media attention and fear of a ban leads people to download the app.
“There are so many people I know who are downloading the app who did not have any interest,” Thornton said.