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As federal TikTok bill advances, Montana ban remains in appeals court

Helena Federal Courthouse
Posted at 6:39 PM, Mar 13, 2024

HELENA — On Wednesday, the U.S. House gave bipartisan support to a bill that could eventually lead to a nationwide ban on the app TikTok.

The bill would require TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, a company headquartered in China, to sell the app within six months or lose access to app stores and internet hosting services. It passed with 197 Republicans and 155 Democrats in support, while 50 Democrats and 15 Republicans were opposed.

Supporters of the bill said it was intended to protect Americans’ data. Congress has probed claims that officials from the Chinese Communist Party might be able to access information on U.S. users. TikTok has denied that their app puts any users’ data at risk.

Montana’s two House members – both Republicans – hailed the bill in statements Wednesday.

“Today I voted to ban the Chinese Communist Party from owning and operating TikTok in the United States,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke. “The bill does not shut down TikTok. It simply and rightfully forces the CCP-controlled parent company to divest. Already American companies have put in bids to buy the platform. It is clear the CCP is not a friend and certainly not trustworthy. I don’t think the Chinese should own our land or our kids’ data.”

“Allowing the Chinese to spy on American citizens is unacceptable,” Rep. Matt Rosendale said in a social media post. “Today, I proudly voted to decouple TikTok and ByteDance to protect millions of Americans’ private information from our staunchest adversary.”

TikTok’s management has pushed back against any suggestion that they’re controlled by the Chinese government, and they have described the bill as a violation of users’ First Amendment rights.

This federal bill comes almost a year after the Montana Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a state-level ban on TikTok. Senate Bill 491, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, would have prohibited the app from operating within Montana or being offered on app stores within the state – though it never took effect because of a legal challenge.

Though the Montana bill was specifically described as a ban and the federal bill isn’t, they share a key provision: If TikTok is sold to a company not based in China or any other country designated a “foreign adversary,” SB 419 contains a section that would make the entire bill void.

Supporters of SB 419 cited the same concerns about exposing data to China as the backers of the federal bill.

“The CCP’s ability to spy on Americans through TikTok is well-documented,” Gianforte said in a social media post Wednesday. “It's time the federal government follow Montana's lead to ban the app to protect our personal, private data.”

SB 419 was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but TikTok and a group of Montana content creators who use the app sued in federal court, saying it violated their free expression rights and overstepped on the federal government’s authority in foreign policy. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued a preliminary injunction in November, saying SB 419 wasn’t narrowly tailored enough to address the Legislature’s security concerns.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen has asked the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the injunction. In an opening brief filed March 1, he cited a “broad, bipartisan concern over TikTok’s data-privacy practices” – including at the federal level – to show Montana’s actions were legitimate.

The plaintiffs in the case have until April 29 to submit their initial court filing in the appeal.

Indications are that the federal bill won’t move as fast through the Senate as it did through the House. On Wednesday, the offices of Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester both told MTN they’re going to review the bill as it comes over to their chamber.