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The Montana House of Representatives on Friday approved a total ban on TikTok inside the state, setting up the state’s Republican governor to sign the first-of-its-kind prohibition into law.
The legislation, which would also bar app stores from carrying TikTok, the wildly popular viral video app, was approved 54 to 43 in the last of two votes in the State House. The State Senate passed it in March.
Gov. Greg Gianforte must decide whether to sign the bill into law, veto it or do nothing for 10 days after receiving the bill and let it become law without his signature. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gianforte, Brooke Metrione, said he would “carefully consider any bill the Legislature sends to his desk.”
A TikTok spokeswoman, Brooke Oberwetter, said in a statement that supporters of the bill had admitted they didn’t have a feasible plan for carrying out the ban.
“We will continue to fight for TikTok users and creators in Montana whose livelihoods and First Amendment rights are threatened by this egregious government overreach,” she said.
Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature became an unlikely battleground in recent weeks in a growing technology fight between the United States and China. Lawmakers in Washington have said for years that they believe TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, could provide information to Beijing or be used to spread propaganda. The Biden administration has told TikTok that it wants its Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the app or face a possible national ban.
Concerns about the app have arisen as the U.S. government has tried to hobble China’s telecommunication companies and chip makers while backing their competitors. In 2020, the government forced a Chinese company to sell the dating app Grindr.
Under the Montana legislation, TikTok could face fines if it continued to operate in the state, as could Apple and Google if they allowed users to download the app. The law lifts the prohibition, which would take effect in 2024, if TikTok is sold to a company that is not incorporated in an adversarial nation.
The ban’s supporters say Beijing could use the app to obtain the data of users in Montana. They point to ByteDance’s admission that some of its employees inappropriately got access to the data of journalists while investigating leaks about the company.
Montana will be in uncharted territory if it tries to ban the app. A trade group funded by Apple and Google has said the companies cannot stop app downloads in a single state. Critics of the legislation say that TikTok users could disguise their location to maintain access to the app, and that the ban may be hard to enforce in border towns.
Lawmakers narrowly voted down a proposed amendment to the bill that would have broadened the ban to all online services that provided data to hostile powers.
The ban will probably be challenged in court if it becomes law. The American Civil Liberties Union and other free speech groups have said the bill violates the First Amendment rights of Montanans who use the app. But the state’s attorney general, whose office drafted the bill, has said he is prepared for a court fight.