TikTok influencers sue Montana to overturn state’s ban

TikTok was banned on government devices in the UK, US and EU earlier this year  (PA Wire)
TikTok was banned on government devices in the UK, US and EU earlier this year (PA Wire)

A group of social media influencers who create content on TikTok have joined forces to sue the US state of Montana for banning the controversial app from January 2024.

On Wednesday, 17 May, Montana’s governor Greg Gianforte signed into law the first-ever US state-level ban of the app, which claims to have more than 150 million users in the country alone.

The five TikTok users argue in their legal filing that the new Montana law violates their First Amendment rights, relating to protections of the freedom of speech and the guarantee of freedom of expression.

“Montana has no authority to enact laws advancing what it believes should be the United States’ foreign policy or its national security interests, nor may Montana ban an entire forum for communication based on its perceptions that some speech shared through that forum, though protected by the First Amendment, is dangerous,” the filing states.

“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes.”

Banning TikTok from iOS and Android app stores

There are several key things to note about Montana’s ban on TikTok.

The first is that the ban only takes effect from 1 January 2024, and there’s nothing to stop you from using the app if you already have it installed on your mobile phone.

The only way to enforce this ban is for the law to prohibit Apple and Google from offering the TikTok app for download on the iOS and Android app stores. So, it’s more that these companies will get fined if the state sees new downloads of the app — no authority is going to come check your phone.

This decision currently only affects citizens in Montana, so if you were to cross state lines and travel to somewhere else in the US, you could still download the app.

You could also use technological methods to evade the ban, such as buying a prepaid SIM card from another state or changing your location so it looks like you reside somewhere else, using a VPN app.

If a whole country were to ban TikTok, like India did in June 2020, this would make it a bit harder for you to download the app and you wouldn’t be able to post, as the connection to TikTok’s servers would be cut.

However, you could still use the aforementioned technological methods to change your location.

Why and where is TikTok use being banned?

The TikTok app on the App Store on an iPhone screen (PA) (PA Wire)
The TikTok app on the App Store on an iPhone screen (PA) (PA Wire)

Questions have been asked about TikTok and its parent company ByteDance’s ties to China over the last two years by the US government.

Earlier this year the US, EU and the UK banned the TikTok app from all government devices.

Despite assurances from ByteDance that its servers are based in North America and that it is not allowing the Chinese government to spy on users or steal their data, the rumblings of discontent have only steadily grown. The company itself moved its headquarters to Singapore in 2020.

In November, ByteDance was forced to admit that it has staff in 10 different countries including China who were able to access data in UK and EU user accounts, as part of doing their jobs.

But the firm emphasised that there are “robust security controls and approval protocols” in place to protect the data, and the methods used are “recognised under the GDPR” – the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

In San Francisco state court, there is also an ongoing lawsuit from former ByteDance employee Yintao “Roger” Yu, who claims he was unfairly dismissed from his job as head of engineering for its US operations.

In the legal filing, he claims that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a special office within the company, known as the “Committee”, from which the Chinese government could access data and influence what content was shared or removed from the platform.

“The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” the legal complaint says.

ByteDance has strongly denied Mr Yu’s allegations, saying they are “baseless”.