People living in Montana will soon need to download a VPN service to keep accessing TikTok.
Republican Governor Greg Gianforte signed for the proposed ban to become law on Wednesday May 17, with the block due to be officially enforced on January 1, 2024.
The move makes Montana the first US state to ban TikTok, raising concerns over their right to free speech - so we've looked at what's at stake for the future of the Chinese social media giant in the country and how using a TikTok VPN might help.
Montana TikTok ban
Gianforte described Montana's TikTok ban as, "our shared priority to protect Montanans from Chinese Communist Party surveillance," the BBC reported.
Perhaps the most downloaded app worldwide, TikTok has been facing growing scrutiny in the US and its allied nations recently. Politicians are especially worried about the app's link with Beijing, fearing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could access US user data and spread nationalist propaganda.
Earlier this month, an ex-employee of TikTok's parent company ByteDance claimed the CCP had "supreme access" to all data as part of a larger wrongful layoff's lawsuit.
In December 2022, it was the news of ByteDance employees spying on some US journalists to raise the alarm. The video-sharing app was then banned on government devices among a long list of democracies, including the US, UK, New Zealand, Canada and some EU countries.
A total block is, however, what the US is striving for with the RESTRICT Act (now passing through the Congress) - exactly what Montana appears to have now finally achieved.
At the same time, experts argue that the US government has so far failed to bring concrete evidence of the alleged wrongdoings. Many commentators also warn of the potential consequences of making TikTok illegal in the US, arguing that the move will restrict Americans' digital rights.
"With this ban, Governor Gianforte and the Montana legislature have trampled on the free speech of hundreds of thousands of Montanans who use the app to express themselves, gather information, and run their small business in the name of anti-Chinese sentiment," said Keegan Medrano, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana.
"We will never trade our First Amendment rights for cheap political points."
This law tramples on our free speech rights under the guise of national security and lays the groundwork for excessive government control over the internet.Elected officials do not have the right to selectively censor entire social media apps based on their country of origin.May 17, 2023
The law will prohibit TikTok from operating inside the state borders, while also requiring app stores to prevent people in Montana from downloading the app. Non-compliance punishments could reach up to $10,000 of starting fine, in addition to another $10,000 for every day the violation continues.
"It would certainly be a costly gamble to keep download options available once the Bill comes into force and app stores would be well advised to comply," Olexandr Kyrychenko, Partner at London-based law firm IMD Corporate, told TechRadar.
All this might also create even worse security risks for TikTok users in Montana as 2024 starts won't be able to download any new updates and fix potential vulnerabilities.
VPN provider Private Internet Access (PIA) also believes that such a move would set a "worrisome precedent" over the future of digital freedom in the US. "Prohibiting the use of certain technologies or social media sites is a restrictive and likely ineffective way to protect US citizens’ data; who should have the right to choose whether or not they want to use these platforms."
According to the BBC, TikTok is expected to challenge the new law in court.
In an official statement, the tech firm wrote: "We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living, and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana."
In the meantime, we advise people in Montana to get a secure VPN service before the end of the year. This security software can, in fact, spoofs users' IP address location and make them appear if they're browsing from a completely different country within seconds.