TikTok Ban in Montana Faces Speed Bump as Governor Seeks Changes

The Chinese social media behemoth was valued at around $220 billion in a recent private-market investment by Abu Dhabi AI firm G42, down from the $300 billion that TikTok’s owner set during a September share buyback program. (AP)
The Chinese social media behemoth was valued at around $220 billion in a recent private-market investment by Abu Dhabi AI firm G42, down from the $300 billion that TikTok’s owner set during a September share buyback program. (AP)

Summary

  • Gov. Greg Gianforte is requesting amendments to the bill to broaden it to all social-media apps that provide certain data to foreign adversaries

Montana’s governor is asking legislators to make changes to a bill that would be the first in the U.S. to ban TikTok outright, according to a draft of the amended bill language viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The changes would broaden the ban from applying specifically to TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance Ltd., and cover social-media applications that provide certain data to foreign adversaries, according to the proposed bill language.

State legislators approved the bill that would ban TikTok on all devices in Montana earlier this month. The bill is in the process of being transmitted to Gov. Greg Gianforte, who can either veto the bill, sign it into law or not take any action. If he doesn’t take action, the bill would automatically become law after 10 days.

The bill, in its current state, was expected to face legal challenges on several fronts, including First Amendment rights, interstate commerce and bill of attainder laws, which prevent the government from declaring an entity guilty of a crime without first going through a trial process.

“While I may criminalize an action, I cannot criminalize an individual and that is exactly what this bill does," said Carl Szabo, general counsel for NetChoice, a trade group that advocates for free-market principles on the internet and whose members include TikTok.

Mr. Gianforte’s office sent the proposed changes to the state legislature’s Legislative Services Division even before formally receiving the bill to expedite the process, according to an email viewed by the Journal.

Mr. Gianforte previously banned TikTok on all government-issued devices and urged Montana’s state university system to do the same, which it did.

“The amendment for consideration seeks to improve the bill by broadening Montanans’ privacy protections beyond just TikTok and against all foreign adversaries, while also addressing the bill’s technical and legal concerns," a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.

TikTok didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The original bill text would also ban app stores, such as those run by Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc., from making TikTok available to download within the state. TikTok and app stores would be liable for fines of $10,000 a day for violating the law. Individual TikTok users wouldn’t be punished.

The governor’s proposed language removes app stores from being held liable for offering such social-media apps for downloading in the state. Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The governor’s legislative changes would retain the current bill’s Jan. 1 start date for the ban to go into effect.

It is still unclear how the ban would be enforced or what would happen to Montanans who downloaded such social-media apps before the Jan. 1 start date. There also remains unanswered questions about whether Montanans could use a workaround like a virtual private network to make their devices look like they are being used outside the state.

TikTok has been facing mounting pressure in the U.S. over concerns in Washington and elsewhere about its Chinese links. The Biden administration recently asked TikTok to separate itself from ByteDance or to face a possible ban, the Journal reported last month. Some members of Congress and Biden administration officials have said they are concerned that the Chinese government could force TikTok to spy on its 150 million U.S. users or distribute propaganda.

TikTok said it would refuse to comply with such a request—and that it has proposed a $1.5 billion plan to the Biden administration that would silo its U.S. operations from China’s influence.

Republicans and Democratic senators last month grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during a five-hour hearing, with several seemingly dissatisfied with Mr. Chew’s answers on Beijing’s potential influence over the video-sharing app, as well as concerns about the effect that the app’s algorithm has on teens and young adults.

China issued a statement ahead of that hearing saying it would oppose any forced sale of TikTok.

Nearly half of U.S. voters support a TikTok ban, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, that also showed sharp divisions over the issue along partisan, age and racial lines.

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