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Federal judge blocks Montana’s proposed TikTok ban

The ban was supposed to start on January 1, but the legal battle is far from over.

tiktok app logo on phone screen
Image: Unsplash

A federal judge in Montana has blocked what would have been the country’s first ban on the social media app TikTok.

In his ruling on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the ban approved by Montana lawmakers earlier this year overstepped the powers of individual states.

He said the measure “infringes on the Constitutional rights of users and businesses.”

As KnowTechie reported back in May, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law Senate Bill 419, which effectively prohibited anyone in the state from downloading or using TikTok.

At the time, Gianforte supported the ban by saying the social media app infringed on the privacy rights of its users and called into question its connection to the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in China.

State lawmakers claimed without evidence that TikTok and ByteDance conspire with government officials in China to pass along sensitive data related to its social media users.

And while there have been incidents involving TikTok employees accessing private data of some U.S.-based users like journalists, the misappropriation of that data appeared to be for business-related purposes, not anything to do with the Chinese government.

What did Montana’s TikTok ban do?

tiktok us flag and chinese flag
Image: KnowTechie

TikTok has been the target of government scrutiny in the past: Former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden didn’t see eye-to-eye on much, but they were united in their support of restrictions or an outright ban on the app at the federal level.

While Trump was in office, his administration had called for ByteDance to divest its American-based TikTok business to a third party if they wanted to remain available in U.S. app stores.

Senate Bill 419 prohibited anyone in the state — including residents and businesses — from downloading, installing and using TikTok on any device.

It followed similar efforts at the federal government, in which TikTok was banned from government-owned devices and restricted certain government workers like military officials from using the app in connection with their work.

But Senate Bill 419 took things a step further by banning anyone in Montana from installing or using the app.

It proposed fines up to $10,000 per day for tech companies that allowed users within the Treasury State to download the app, but didn’t outline penalties for those who actually used it.

There were some exceptions to the law: It didn’t criminalize prior installations of the app — and, the law wasn’t scheduled to take effect until January 2024.

That means Montana residents and businesses had plenty of time to download and install the app before the law kicked in.

However, whether they could use TikTok apps already installed on phones and tablets was something of a gray area.

Shortly after Montana’s governor signed it into law, TikTok creators sued to prevent the ban from going into effect.

ByteDance supported some of these efforts, with a spokesperson saying the ban “infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people…by unlawfully banning TikTok, a platform that empowers hundreds of thousands of people across the state.”

Why did the federal judge overturn the ban?

tik tok and other social apps on a phone screen
Image: Unsplash

Judge Molloy ultimately sided with creators and ByteDance on the issue, saying Montana overstepped its bounds by implementing a state law on a matter that falls under federal jurisdiction.

The judge also found that the blanket ban on TikTok violated the First Amendment of residents in Montana.

He suggested that similar efforts at the federal level — if they ever made it to the point of a law passed by Congress — might also fail if challenged in court.

Judge Malloy also called into question Montana’s intent in passing the law.

He noted that it appeared to be more concerned with TikTok and ByteDance’s connection to the Chinese government than any real or suggested safety implications for residents and businesses. Judge Molloy wrote,

“Despite the state’s attempt to defend [the ban] as a consumer protection bill, the current record leaves little doubt that Montana’s legislature and Attorney General were more interested in targeting China’s ostensible role in TikTok than with protecting Montana consumers.”

“This is especially apparent in that the same legislature enacted an entirely separate law that purports to broadly protect consumers’ digital data and privacy.”

What happens next?

TikTok followers on phone
Image: Unsplash

The ruling this week is a temporary win for ByteDance, TikTok and creators who use the app, but it doesn’t mean the case is completely over.

Instead, the ruling is a merely an injunction that prevents the Montana law from taking effect on January 1.

Officials representing the state will still have an opportunity to present their legal case outlining why the ban should move forward, and ByteDance and TikTok still have some work to do to fully overturn the law.

State officials could fight the judge’s injunction to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but at this stage in the case, it seems unlikely they would succeed.

Instead, their efforts are probably better spent defending the law through the next stage of the legal process — and it appears that’s what they are going to do.

Emily Cantrell, a spokesperson for the Montana Attorney General’s office, told the Associated Press in a statement,

The judge indicated several times that the analysis could change as the case proceeds.

We look forward to presenting the complete legal argument to defend the law that protects Montanans from the Chinese Communist Party obtaining and using their data.

Meanwhile, ByteDance is treating the injunction as an initial win for their side, saying it proves their argument that the law is unconstitutional. Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement,

The judge rejected this unconstitutional law and hundreds of thousands of Montanans can continue to express themselves, earn a living, and find community on TikTok.

For the moment, nothing changes in Montana — residents and businesses will still be allowed to download TikTok from app stores, and use the app as they’ve been doing this entire time.

Have any thoughts on this? Drop us a line below in the comments, or carry the discussion to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Matthew Keys is an award-winning freelance journalist who covers the intersection of media, technology and journalism. He is the publisher of TheDesk.net and a contributor to KnowTechie, StreamTV Insider (formerly Fierce Video) and Digital Content Next. Matthew is based in Northern California.

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