TikTok is now banned in Montana. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Ssolen

The newly-announced ban of ByteDance’s TikTok app in Montana, which will affect at least 200,000 TikTok users, has become a curtain-raiser for a national debate about security, privacy and freedom of speech in the United States.

Greg Gianforte, the governor of Montana and a Republican, on Wednesday signed a bill that will forbid app stores, such as Google’s and Apple’s, from making TikTok available to download within the state from January 1 next year. 

Individual TikTok users will not face penalties but TikTok and app stores will be liable for fines of US$10,000 per day for violating the law.

Prior to this, major Western countries and at least 20 American states have already banned the app on government devices. A bill that will grant the US President power to completely ban TikTok in the US is being discussed in Congress.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has criticized the West for suppressing TikTok, which has about 1.05 billion monthly active users globally. However, Beijing has not yet launched any retaliatory actions. After all, US social media apps including Twitter and Facebook have never been available in China. 

Some commentators suggested that China probe Tesla because its cars may pose a threat to China’s national security, especially during wartime. That proposal encountered skepticism from analysts who said Beijing will not be unfriendly to Tesla because the company is bringing new technologies into the country and setting a standard for electric vehicles that Chinese competitors productively try to emulate.

“TikTok is just one app tied to foreign adversaries,” Gianforte tweeted on Wednesday. “To protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), I have banned TikTok in Montana.” 

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signs the TikTok ban. Photo: Daily Montanan

Gianforte also ordered the ban of ByteDance’s CapCut and Lemon8, Russia’s Telegram Messenger, Pinduoduo’s Temu and Tencent’s WeChat. He said staff of the Montana government, as well as third-party firms conducting business for or on behalf of the government, have to remove these apps and TikTok from their work devices from June 1.

Gianforte’s decision is praised by some netizens but younger ones complain that their rights to use social media are sacrificed. Some others said they will use virtual private networks to download banned apps, just as mainland Chinese are doing to get access to foreign websites.

TikTok said in a statement that Gianforte has signed a bill that infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok. It said it will continue working to defend the rights of its users inside and outside of Montana.

“Montanans are indisputably exercising their First Amendment rights when they post and consume content on TikTok,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, says in a statement. “Because Montana can’t establish that the ban is necessary or tailored to any legitimate interest, the law is almost certain to be struck down as unconstitutional.”

Last December, the US Congress passed the No TikTok on Government Devices Act, which requires federal agencies to remove the Chinese app from their devices. On December 30, US President Joe Biden signed the Act into the law, which affects about 4 million government employees. 

After the US and Canada banned TikTok on government devices in February, the European Commission, the United Kingdom and Australia followed suit. On February 24, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul introduced the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act, or DATA Act, which if passed and signed into law will allow the President to ban the use of TikTok nationwide.

In March, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS), an inter-agency committee of the US government, urged ByteDance to dispose of TikTok’s shares.

Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said on March 16 that the US has generalized the concept of national security and abused its state power to suppress foreign firms. 

‘Probe Tesla!‘ 

After TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew was grilled by US lawmakers for nearly six hours on March 23, some Chinese commentators suggested that US entrepreneur Elon Musk should be questioned in the same way in China because his Tesla cars and Starlink project may pose a national security threat.

Security risk to China? Elon Musk with cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Photo: Fox21 News Colorado

This theme has spread on the Internet. “If Tesla cars are allowed to freely collect geographic information in China during wartime, they can detect some Chinese military vehicles on the roads and send this information back to the US for launching precision strikes,” says a Guangdong-based writer. “China will lose all secrets if millions or tens of millions of Tesla cars help collect data for foreign adversaries.”

Against a backdrop of rising Sino-US tensions, the Chinese government should check whether Tesla cars’s radars and detectors will be used to collect data on roads for military use, Bai Yimin, a director of the National Japanese Economic Association, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says in a video.

“In the Ukrainian-Russian war, we have seen that Starlink provided a large amount of intelligence to Ukraine and caused major casualties to the Russian army,” Bai says. “We are also aware that Elon Musk often visits US military schools and has pictures taken with military officers. We should seriously investigate and assess whether Tesla will threaten China’s national security.”

He adds: “Our relevant government departments should question Musk about all these issues. But if the word ‘question’ is a bit too strong, let’s say ‘invite’.”

In early 2021, the Chinese government forbade staff of the military and of sensitive state-owned-enterprises and government departments to use Tesla cars. Musk has said that Tesla cars will not become spying tools. He also opposes the ban of TikTok in the US.

Some technology experts say it is unlikely that China will retaliate against big US firms such as Tesla or Apple, which are bringing new technologies to the country and also creating jobs. They argue that there are more effective ways to hurt the US.  

“When the US was suppressing Huawei Technologies, some people suggested that China limit the sales of iPhones in the country,” a Chinese writer says in an article. “But why did our government not do it? It is because a sizable portion of Apple’s supply chain is now based in China, bringing in businesses and technologies for our high-precision manufacturers and creating jobs.” 

Read: China roars as US presses ByteDance to sell TikTok

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3