A federal judge has declared Montana’s law to be the first in the nation to ban the popular video-sharing app, TikTok, as unconstitutional. The law, which was set to go into effect in one month, was blocked on Thursday.
The decision provided a short-term victory for the social media corporation, which has contended that Montana’s Republican-led Legislature exceeded reasonable bounds in attempting to regulate the application. A final decision will be made at a future date as the legal dispute progresses through the judicial system.
Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court ruled that the ban exceeds state authority and violates the constitutional rights of both users and businesses. He also criticized the state for its excessive focus on perceived Chinese influence.
“Despite the state’s attempt to defend (the law) 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,” Molloy wrote Thursday in granting the preliminary injunction. “This is especially apparent in that the same legislature enacted an entirely separate law that purports to broadly protect consumers’ digital data and privacy.”
In May, legislators in Montana became the first to pass a law completely banning the use of the app, citing concerns that the Chinese government could obtain user data from TikTok. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing.
The prohibition, originally planned for implementation on January 1st, was initially presented to the Montana Legislature shortly after a Chinese surveillance balloon passed over the state.
The proposed legislation would ban the ability to download TikTok within the state and impose a $10,000 daily fine on any entity, such as an app store or TikTok itself, for each instance where someone is given the opportunity to access or download the app. Users would not face penalties.
According to a statement from TikTok representative Jamal Brown, the company is satisfied that the judge has rejected this unconstitutional law, allowing hundreds of thousands of Montanans to continue using the platform to express themselves, make a living, and connect with others.
A representative for Austin Knudsen, the Republican Montana Attorney General, attempted to minimize the impact of the ruling in a statement.
“The judge reiterated multiple times that the analysis may be subject to alteration as the case progresses,” stated Emily Cantrell, spokesperson for Knudsen. “We eagerly anticipate presenting our full legal argument in defense of the law that safeguards Montanans from the Chinese Communist Party obtaining and exploiting their data.”
Governments in the West have raised concerns about the potential for sensitive information to be shared with the Chinese government or for the platform to be used as a means of spreading false information. Chinese legislation permits the government to require companies to assist with intelligence collection.
Over half of the states in the United States and the federal government have prohibited the use of TikTok on government-issued devices. The company has dismissed these bans as a form of political performance and argues that additional limitations are not needed because they are already taking steps to safeguard American data by storing it on Oracle servers. The company also claims that it has not been asked by the Chinese government for any data from American users and would refuse to share it if requested.
The judge stated that the central issue of this dispute is the level of control that China has over TikTok and its users’ data.
Lawyers representing TikTok and the creators of its content contended on October 12th that the government had overstepped its bounds in attempting to control TikTok, and is essentially attempting to enforce its own international policies based on unsubstantiated fears that TikTok may share user data with the Chinese government.
According to legal documents, TikTok argued that instead of completely banning the app, Montana could have imposed restrictions on the type of data it collects from its users. However, those who create content on the platform claim that the ban goes against their right to free speech and could negatively impact their businesses.
Christian Corrigan, the lawyer for the state, contended that Montana’s legislation was not intended to express a stance on international affairs, but rather to tackle significant and widespread worries regarding safeguarding personal information.
Molloy stated that there is no proof provided by the state regarding TikTok’s supposed harmful handling of data.
During the hearing, Molloy pointed out that users of TikTok agree to the company’s policies regarding data collection. Furthermore, Knudsen, who was responsible for creating the legislation, has the ability to broadcast public service announcements to inform individuals about the data collected by TikTok.
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with its Montana chapter and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group advocating for digital privacy rights, have filed an amicus brief to support the challenge. On the other hand, 18 attorneys general from predominantly Republican-led states are supporting Montana and urging the judge to allow the implementation of the law. However, cybersecurity experts have stated that enforcing the law could be difficult.
Haleluya Hadero, a writer for the Associated Press, provided contributions from New York.