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Montana's governor signs a measure banning TikTok in his state

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Montana has become the first state to ban TikTok.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's seen as a test case as other states and Washington debate the future of the hit video sharing app. There are many questions, like how's the ban going to work? Is it even legal? On the app, Montana-based creators have started saying their goodbyes, promoting other social media platforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have my YouTube linked. And I'm also going to start an Instagram this summer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am going to keep posting. I do have a YouTube account.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: See you. I'll be on YouTube.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us now to discuss all of this. Bobby, can an app be banned in a state? I mean, how does that work?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So supporters of the bill point to online gambling. They say online gambling sites are blocked in states where it's illegal. It is possible to design a digital firewall, you know, something known as a geofence, to prohibit a site or app from being accessed within a state. And that's what Montana is trying to do here - right? - with stiff penalties. The law makes it illegal to download TikTok. And any entity that provides access to TikTok, like an app store, could be fined up to $10,000 a day for making TikTok available. Now, some experts say it's going to be pretty tough to enforce this ban. But, you know, they have some time to work out the kinks because the law doesn't go into effect until January.

MARTÍNEZ: But what got Montana to this place, banning TikTok?

ALLYN: Yeah, well, Montana and dozens of other states have shared a concern that many in Washington have with TikTok. And it's been described to me as the China problem, right? TikTok's parent company is ByteDance, which is based in Beijing. And state and federal officials fear that the Chinese government could request the data of millions of Americans and then use that data to try to influence the views of Americans or spy on U.S. citizens. So because of this fear, Montana and many other states banned TikTok on government-issued devices. We heard a lot about that. But what happened yesterday, the governor signing a bill outright banning TikTok within the state's borders, I mean, that, A, is so much more. It's a much more drastic step.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Safe for me to say that TikTok will be fighting this?

ALLYN: Oh, yeah. It's widely expected that it will be in the courts soon. TikTok says the ban is an unconstitutional violation of Americans' free speech rights. And, you know, groups like the ACLU are backing TikTok's fight. The ACLU says the government can't impose a total ban on a social media platform unless there is an immediate harm to national security. And if TikTok and the ACLU are to be believed, you know, they say there just is not enough evidence to support the idea that TikTok is a threat to national security.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, what is the evidence that it would pose a threat?

ALLYN: Yeah, there isn't any direct evidence that the Chinese government has ever accessed TikTok user data. But critics of TikTok point to intelligence laws in China that allow the government kind of unfettered access to a company's customer records. On top of that, ByteDance has used its other social media apps in China to amplify and promote stories pushing the official Chinese government line. So there's a fear that they might do that with TikTok.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so Montana banning TikTok. Has the Biden White House made any decision on TikTok?

ALLYN: Yeah. You know, the White House officials have threatened to ban TikTok nationally unless ByteDance finds an American buyer. But negotiations are kind of at a standstill right now. You know, TikTok, for its part, says it has a new data security plan that will keep Americans' data outside of the reach of Chinese authorities. But Biden officials are just not convinced. And, A, as these talks continue between the White House and TikTok, you can bet that White House officials will be watching to see how this Montana case plays out in federal courts.

MARTÍNEZ: We would never ban NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Bobby, talk again soon.

ALLYN: (Laughter) I hope not. Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.