Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) on Wednesday signed a full ban on TikTok operating inside the state, a first-of-its kind law that faces certain legal challenge with national implications. Gianforte and the law's sponsors in the state Legislature argue that TikTok, owned by China's ByteDance, could feed U.S. user data to the Chinese government or pass on pro-Beijing propaganda to impressionable Americans. TikTok and free speech advocates called the law a clear violation of the First Amendment. It is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
While the constitutionality of the law is hashed out in court, Montana has another novel challenge on its hands: How will the ban actually work?
The law prohibits downloads of TikTok anywhere in Montana. The state will fine any "entity" $10,000 a day each time it allows residents to download or access TikTok, or offers the ability to access the app. Anyone can report a violation. Individual users are exempt. Internet service providers are too, after an AT&T lobbyist told the Legislature it was "not workable" for ISPs to block TikTok. That means the entities most on the hook are Apple, Google and TikTok.
How are Apple, Google and ByteDance supposed to block people in Montana, and only Montana, from accessing TikTok? According to state Sen. Shelley Vance (R), who sponsored the legislation, "the onus of complying with the legislation would be on TikTok itself," The Wall Street Journal reports. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who helped write the ban, pointed to geofencing technology used to block online sports gambling in states where it's illegal. But whichever tool each company decides to use, Knudson spokesman Kyler Nerison said, it's up to them "to not allow their apps to work in Montana and other states where they are not legal."
Apple and Google — which operate the popular app stores for iPhones and Android devices, respectively — have not commented on the legislation or its feasibility. But the TechNet trade group both companies belong to says app stores don't have the ability to "geofence" apps in different states or prevent them from being downloaded in Montana.
Cybersecurity experts told The Associated Press that app stores and apps like TikTok do have various tools at their disposal to block use by geography, but they are cumbersome, prone to error, and could pretty easily be thwarted by Montanans using virtual private networks (VPNs) and privacy settings to shield their location.