By David Shepardson
(Reuters) – Montana Governor Greg Gianforte on Wednesday signed legislation to ban Chinese-owned TikTok from operating in the state to protect residents from alleged intelligence gathering by China, making it the first U.S. state to ban the popular short video app.
Montana will make it unlawful for Google and Apple’s app stores to offer TikTok within the state, but will not impose any penalties on individuals using the app. The ban is to take effect Jan. 1, 2024, and is almost certain to face legal challenges.
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, did not respond to a Reuters question asking if it planned legal action.
Earlier, TikTok issued a statement saying that the new law “infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok,” and said it will “continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana.”
TikTok, which has over 150 million American users, has faced growing calls from U.S. lawmakers and state officials to ban the app nationwide over concerns about potential Chinese government influence over the platform.
The app has become wildly popular with teens. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16% of all teens say they use the app almost constantly. TikTok has said that the “vast majority” of its users are over the age of 18.
In March, a congressional committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about whether the Chinese government could access user data or influence what Americans see on the app. But calls to ban TikTok nationwide or give the Biden administration new powers to crack down or ban TikTok have not advanced in Congress.
Gianforte, a Republican, said the bill will further “our shared priority to protect Montanans from Chinese Communist Party surveillance.”
TikTok has repeatedly denied that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and has said the company would not do so if asked.
FREE SPEECH “TRAMPLED”
Montana, which has a population of just over 1 million people, said TikTok could face fines for each violation and additional fines of $10,000 per day if it violates the ban.
The short video app can be downloaded in app stores on Apple Inc and Google devices. Apple and Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, could also face fines of $10,000 per violation, per day if they violate the ban.
Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) slammed the law as “unconstitutional” and noted that it will go into effect on Jan. 1 if the courts do not act.
“With this ban, 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,” Keegan Medrano, policy director at the ACLU of Montana, said in a statement.
An attempt by former President Donald Trump to ban new downloads of TikTok and WeChat through a Commerce Department order in 2020 was blocked by multiple courts and never took effect.
TikTok’s free speech allies include several Democratic members of Congress, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and First Amendment groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Industry group NetChoice general counsel Carl Szabo also criticized the new law. “The government may not block our ability to access constitutionally protected speech – whether it is in a newspaper, on a website or via an app.” he said in a statement, adding that Montana “ignores the U.S. Constitution, due process and free speech.”
Gianforte, who had sought to convince the state legislature to broaden the ban to other social media applications that provide certain data to foreign adversaries, also prohibited the use of all social media applications that collect and provide personal information or data to foreign adversaries on state government-issued devices.
TikTok is working on an initiative called Project Texas, which creates a standalone entity to store American user data in the U.S. on servers operated by U.S. tech company Oracle .
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler)