Is Montana’s Crazed TikTok Ban a Total Waste of Time? Probably

It just shows how hard it is to control big tech

  • Montana's House of Representatives just voted 54-43 to ban TikTok from the state. 
  • If signed, the law would almost certainly be unenforceable. 
  • Worse, trying to enforce it would invade the same citizens' rights it claims to protect.
Closeup on someone holding up a smartphone in a busy shopping mall, the phone has the TikTok logo on it.

Olivier Bergeron / Unsplash

Montana just voted to ban TikTok, and its reasons are hilarious.

Job one for today, if you haven't done it already, is to read the text of Montana's new bill to ban TikTok in the state. It is an utter misunderstanding of how the Internet works. At the same time, this story paints a worrying picture of how hard it is to police international technology companies at a state or even national level. 

"Has, uh, anyone actually read this Montana bill banning "tik-tok"? It's completely unhinged," writes culture watcher Andy Baio on Mastodon. "I wonder if this is the first legislation to mention licking toilet seats."

Montana Lawmakers Are... Serious?

Montana's House has voted 54-43 in favor of this bill. If Governor Greg Gianforte signs it, it will go into effect in January 2024. The law would impose fines of $10,000 per violation. It doesn't target the individuals using the app, and it's hard to see how Montana could serve these fines to TikTik's owner, ByteDance, in China. So instead, it targets the app stores distributing the app. 

Why would any government want to ban TikTok? The answer should be "security." ByteDance is partially owned by the Chinese government, so one must assume that all data and information created when using the app is in its hands, including location data, direct messages, and so on.

Enforcing the ban at the state level can be challenging.

And Montana's bill does mention this aspect, citing the possibility that the People's Republic of China could "track the real-time locations of public officials, journalists, and other individuals adverse to the Chinese Communist Party's interests."

And then things go nuts. I don't want to spoil it for you, but the bill goes deep on many of the viral crazes that have swept TikTok, "including but not limited to" "lighting a mirror on fire and then attempting to extinguish it using only one's body parts," "attempting to climb stacks of milkcrates," and lots more. It's like a pre-season brainstorming list for a remake of the early 2000s TV series Jackass.

Banning TikTok Just Ins't That Easy

The bill itself might be laughable, but it raises a serious concern. What can a state, or even a country, do to control online services in the Internet age? Montana clearly can't go after a Chinese company, so it is left snapping at the periphery. And even this attempt is all but futile.

"Enforcing the ban at the state level can be challenging. While it is possible to fine Apple and Google's app stores for allowing downloads within Montana, tracking individual users who download the app from elsewhere is difficult," attorney Min Hwan Ahn told Lifewire via email.

And it gets worse. This bill states that it exists to protect the privacy of the citizens of Montana, but in order to enforce it, the state would have to snoop on those very citizens. 

Closeup on a hand holding a smartphone displaying the TikTok logo on the screen.

Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

"Furthermore, the enforcement of such a ban raises privacy concerns as it would require monitoring the online activities of Montana residents," says Hwan. 

State laws like this are not just practically unenforceable. They probably won't stand up in court, either. 

"As a social media platform, TikTok might be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In part, that federal statute protects internet platforms from liability for posts by its users. The users can be punished for their comments—in criminal or civil actions—but the platforms are considered neutral and, therefore, immune from liability. The federal law will likely take precedence over the state law," Professor Lynn Greenky, who teaches argumentation, advocacy, and First Amendment theory at Syracuse, told Lifewire via email. 

And despite the fact that the US government has more power, going after individual companies is difficult thanks to the protections in the constitution. 

"[E]ven attempting a content-neutral legislation can be dicey," says Greenky. "Congress has gotten its hand slapped before (by a less conservative Supreme Court) for trying to regulate the internet."

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