Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) The Montana House on Thursday advanced a bill that aims to ban TikTok in Montana, narrowly rejecting an amendment from Rep. Katie Sullivan that sought to change the bill so it applied to any social media company selling or transferring user data to a foreign adversary.

“We can make this count in Montana by coming up with a piece of policy that gets everybody to respect the privacy of all Montanans, and that includes more than just one company and includes more than just one country,” the Missoula Democrat told the chamber. “And I think that my amendment is less likely to get struck down.”

Sullivan said she believed the current version of Senate Bill 419, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, could run afoul of a section of the Montana Constitution that says the legislature “shall not pass a special or local act when a general act is, or can be made, applicable.” There is no legal review note attached to the measure, however.

Since Vance’s bill specifically goes after TikTok and the People’s Republic of China, which owns TikTok’s parent company, Sullivan told the chamber that having a more general bill would not only make it fit that constitutional description, it would also put all tech companies – including TikTok – on notice that Montanans’ data was not for harvesting and selling to foreign adversaries like China and Russia.

“Why would we limit it to one company in one country when we know very well that social media companies are doing the same thing – other ones,” she said. “They are selling and trading and using Montanans data, and they are sending it to servers located all over the world.”

Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, who is carrying the bill in the House, said the amendment would “strip the whole intent” of the original TikTok ban and that the reason it was written as-is was because TikTok is “completely and solely owned by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said he was “saddened” the amendment was brought up on the floor, saying it could have been vetted in committee and gone through public comment, though amendments are typically placed on bills in committee during executive action with no public comment.

Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, asked why any lawmakers wanted the ban to apply to other companies if it was going to cost more money and said supporters of the amendment were burying their heads in the sand by not focusing solely on TikTok.

“They’re the ones that are the adversary, so let’s kill this amendment and go ahead and pass the bill,” he said. “Then, Montana will stand up and say we’ve had enough of this infiltrating our kids, infiltrating our system and stealing all of our information.”

The amendment failed to pass in a 48-51 vote, though 16 Republicans joined all Democrats in voting in its favor.

Speaking in favor of the bill, several Republicans said TikTok had helped spread “challenges” that have sometimes led to illegal activity and had changed the values and behavior of Montana children.

Several Democrats spoke in opposition to the bill, saying they had discussed with their children how to view appropriate material on the app, that it had helped small business owners market their products, and that the ban was unenforceable because of VPNs that could be used to mask a web user’s true location.

“I’m not sure any bill we’ve seen this session – I mean this with the greatest respect to this body – that has such a stark contrast between the seriousness with which the issue is: privacy for Montanans, how that data is misused, and the lack of expertise in this body to adequately address it,” said Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula.

Ler said he took offense to her statement, saying the 100-member body “can come up with good solutions to any problem we face.”

Congress is already considering at the federal level a broad ban on technology platforms that are deemed to be foreign threats, and Montana has disallowed the app from any state devices as of December. Vance’s bill would subject any company that allows TikTok to be downloaded or used in the state to fines of $10,000 for each violation and another $10,000 a day if the violation continues.

The bill passed its second reading in a 60-39 vote, and if it clears its third House vote, which will likely come Friday, would be sent to the governor’s desk.

If it passes and is signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, the measure would take effect Jan. 1, 2024, and Montana would become the first state to ban the app.

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