Are we really proceeding down a path where I might have to delete and re-download certain apps as I cross state lines? What is the future of TikTok bans, and could they ever actually be enforced?
US policymakers have been scrutinizing the app intensely in recent months over concerns about Chinese espionage, but Montana’s ban is the most dramatic move so far. Legislators structured the law to target marketplaces like Google Play and Apple’s App Store. Starting on January 1, 2024, those companies could face a fine of $10,000 per day if they make TikTok available to users in Montana.
A lot of pundits, politicians, and technologists have written off the ban as ridiculous, unconstitutional, and xenophobic. And it’s already seeing legal challenges. On Monday, TikTok filed a lawsuit against Montana following a suit from a group of users, citing Constitutional grounds.
Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University and co-director of the law school’s High Tech Law Institute, told me that he doubts the bans are anything more than a political play, intended to deliver a message: “It’s just propaganda, not actually an effort to keep Montanans safe.”
There is still really no evidence that TikTok is handing over user data to the Chinese government on the scale that US politicians are claiming. But proposed TikTok bans are cropping up all over the US with mostly bipartisan support, and President Biden has threatened a national ban as well. It’s also not the first time US lawmakers have pushed a TikTok backlash; in 2020, the Trump administration tried to ban the app but was blocked after a judge determined there wasn’t enough evidence of Chinese spying.
As for its enforceability, what would happen if Montana’s ban did go into effect? Would I have to delete the app if I went to visit Glacier National Park? That’s not at all likely, and the current law looks to cut off access to the app at the point of initial download—not for people who already have it on their phones.
Some Montana TikTokers have already started lamenting the potential loss of their platforms and communities on the app, but they might not need to worry too much, as the law also doesn’t directly threaten to punish TikTok users.
Removing TikTok from app stores would significantly reduce its ability to gain new users, and the stores would be tasked with policing access according to device location. TechNet, a lobby group that represents Apple and Google, says that enforcement of such a policy is currently impossible as the stores don’t have the ability to “geofence” by state.