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A federal judge has stopped a US state’s landmark ban on TikTok from going into effect, in an important test case for the widespread political backlash that has grown in the country against the Chinese-owned video sharing app.
Montana’s Senate Bill 419, which was signed by the state’s Republican governor Greg Gianforte in May, would have gone into effect in January and imposed a ban on downloads of the app.
On Thursday, Judge Donald Molloy granted TikTok’s request for a preliminary injunction after the ByteDance-owned app challenged the legislation in court, denouncing it as an unconstitutional infringement of its rights. Some users of the app also joined the legal challenge.
While the law would only have applied to Montana — a western state with a population of just 1.1mn — the case has reflected a broader global debate around security concerns with the app, which has drawn attention from governments and regulators concerned that TikTok’s ties to China may allow it to harvest user data for espionage purposes.
A number of states have restricted downloads of the app on devices used by government employees, but Montana was the first to ban downloads for all residents.
The Montana bill also cites TikTok’s failure to remove dangerous content for minors as a justification for a ban.
Groups including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Chamber of Progress filed briefs in support of TikTok in the case, while a Virginia-led group of 18 states threw its support behind Montana.
To win a preliminary injunction, the plaintiff must show that its case has an overall likelihood of success. The judge concluded that TikTok had done so.
“Despite the state’s attempt to defend SB 419 as a consumer protection bill, the current record leaves little doubt that Montana’s legislature and attorney-general were more interested in targeting China’s ostensible role in TikTok than with protecting Montana consumers,” Molloy wrote.
TikTok had argued that the law restricts the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by denying them an important channel of communication.
The judge concluded that the bill was not “narrowly tailored” enough, effectively amounting to over-reach by the legislature, which must justify such measures on the grounds of an important governmental interest.
“First, the law’s foreign policy purpose is not an important Montana state interest.” And another state law already shields the protection of children online, he noted.
“SB 419 completely bans TikTok in Montana. It does not limit the application in a targeted way with the purpose of attacking the perceived Chinese problem.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Montana attorney-general said the injunction would only apply while the court considered the full merits of the case. “We look forward to presenting the complete legal argument to defend the law that protects Montanans from the Chinese Communist party obtaining and using their data,” said Emilee Cantrell.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “We are pleased the judge rejected this unconstitutional law and hundreds of thousands of Montanans can continue to express themselves, earn a living, and find community on TikTok.”
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