- Montana is the first US state to ban TikTok, as US lawmakers discuss a federal ban.
- US lawmakers have been talking about a possible TikTok ban over its ties to China.
- Montana’s law suggests a federal ban would be hard to enforce — and might not solve anything.
Last week, Montana became the first US state to ban TikTok — and the rule’s implementation could show just how hard it would be to enact a federal ban.
There’s already been strong opposition to the state bill. On Tuesday, TikTok sued Montana over the new law, saying it violates Americans’ First Amendment right to free expression. That’s after a group of TikTok creators also sued the state with the same argument. The ACLU has also issued a statement calling the ban is unconstitutional.
Montana’s ban comes as US lawmakers have been discussing a federal ban on TikTok, citing concerns with TikTok’s parent company Bytedance and its ties to China.
Meanwhile, privacy advocates and others said Montana’s law is hard to enforce — both politically and technologically. On top of that, privacy and tech experts say it’s not likely to solve the actual concern with TikTok’s data-gathering practices.
Montana’s TikTok ban is hard to enforce from a tech standpoint
While the ACLU and other civil rights groups are questioning the legality of Montana’s TikTok ban, even if it did stand up to a court challenge, it’s hard to actually enforce. The law makes it illegal for app stores to allow users to download TikTok — and illegal for TikTok to operate in the state.
The law allows for $10,000-per-day fines on TikTok, app stores, or any other “entity” that “offered the ability” to download TikTok in the state. But both Apple and Google say that doing this would require redoing how users are tracked, The Washington Post reported. It actually would require more user data to be tracked to determine exact locations, they say.
The companies arrange their app stores to comply with different regulations by country, not by state. Even if that could be changed, it would be necessary to track down a person’s specific location using their device’s IP address, but that’s easily overcome with a virtual private network, or VPN, experts said.
“Montana’s TikTok ban is laughably unconstitutional, but it’s also comically difficult to enforce,” said Evan Greer, of privacy-advocacy group Fight for the Future. “Any teenage anime fan or British TV aficionado can tell you how to circumvent such a silly ban using a virtual private network,” which can obscure a user’s actual location.
Moreover, some privacy advocates say TikTok doesn’t collect any more data than other social media networks, like Facebook, or websites, like Google.
And in some cases, it’s actually less, argues Aaron Mendes, CEO of Privacy Hawk, a tool to help people protect their personal data online. TikTok doesn’t collect location data, he said, and it only requires a name, which doesn’t need to be real, and a phone number or email address.
Banning TikTok won’t actually stop data-gathering practices either, he said.
“The information that a foreign government would want about various US citizens is much easier to get in other places than from TikTok,” Mendes said. For example, it can be easy to buy people’s data and information from data brokers, which harvest things like user data from social media and mobile phone location data, he said.
The fallout from Montana’s law shows a federal ban on TikTok would be even harder
Given how hard Montana’s TikTok ban could be to enforce — both legally and tech-wise — experts said a nationwide ban is likely to be even more arduous and confusing.
As far as legal challenges, for example, in 2020 federal judges blocked President Donald Trump’s executive order banning TikTok and the Chinese app WeChat.
And ultimately, political advocates and data privacy groups are urging states and the feds to look at comprehensive consumer data-privacy legislation rather than banning one app. California’s recently passed data-privacy law is one example in that direction, experts said.
“If states are concerned about foreign powers collecting our data, they should focus on comprehensive consumer data-privacy legislation that will have a real impact — and protect our data no matter what platform it’s on,” said Karen Gullo of digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.