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How You, or Anyone, Can Dodge Montana’s TikTok Ban

Montana’s TikTok ban will be impossible to enforce. But it could encourage copycat crackdowns against the social media app.

Montana’s TikTok ban is a technological nightmare. Experts warn it will be incredibly difficult for officials to enforce and incredibly easy for almost anyone to get around. But more than that, it’s a move that undermines America’s history of fostering an open, democratic internet.

The law, which comes into effect at the start of 2024, will both block TikTok from mobile app stores in Montana while also banning TikTok from operating in the state. It’s a move that brings with it a host of First Amendment concerns, and may never be enacted if legal challenges block it. But, if it does go ahead, experts warn it is likely to be a mess.

“From a technical perspective, even if this was a national law, there would be challenges to try to make this work,” says John Morris, principal, US internet policy and advocacy at the Internet Society, a nonprofit that promotes an open internet. But because people can use VPNs to change their browsing location, it’s even harder to ensure a local ban will work. “State boundaries are not something that’s built into the internet.” 

The new law is the first on the books following years of anxiety in the US around TikTok as a national security risk. That perceived threat looms because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese-owned. TikTok has also become one of the most popular apps in the world, with 150 million users in the US alone. 

The Montana law calls for $10,000 penalties to be levied on mobile app stores when they allow people to download or use TikTok. TikTok could also be fined for operating in the state. The fines would not apply to people who download the app. 

The US has historically advocated for an open internet and criticized countries that censor online access. China is successful in its mass censorship because of its Great Firewall—a system unlike anything in the US, and one that Montana could not build for itself. Other countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, have banned TikTok and then rescinded the blocks. India’s TikTok ban, introduced in June 2020, is still in place. Montana, along with other states, and the US federal government have blocked TikTok from government devices, but geoblocking from specific regions within the US would prove much harder.

An older version of the Montana bill would have forced internet services providers to block TikTok in the state. But ISPs said it would be impossible to do so, and the requirement was removed. Mobile app providers like Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment. And while Montana has now passed the law banning TikTok, it remains to be seen how it plans to do so.

Montana officials have suggested tech that restricts online sports gambling, which remains illegal in more than a dozen US states, could be employed to boot TikTok out of its borders. If anyone reports a violation, officials would investigate it, and if a breach was verified, cease-and-desist letters would be sent to the companies, the state attorney general’s office told the Associated Press

Such blocks are regularly circumvented using VPNs. And VPNs have their own security issues—people who use them can become targets for hackers. Some VPNs also keep logs of user data, which can be accessed by law enforcement with subpoenas. 

But there’s no way for TikTok to know whether people are using VPNs within Montana to access the social network, which makes this law “very complicated,” and “very difficult to enforce” if TikTok is the liable party rather than the service provider, says Kevin Du, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University. 

In response to the ban, TikTok said it would “continue working to defend the rights” of users inside and outside Montana. The company has also called the ban unlawful. The law was also criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it violates “free speech rights under the guise of national security and lays the groundwork for excessive government control over the internet.” TikTok creators, who are often semipublic figures, have already sued the state of Montana, claiming the new law violates free speech rights.  

It might make up a tiny slice of TikTok’s global user base, but if Montana’s ban stands, it could influence legislation in other US states. A nationwide ban remains both complex and unlikely.