TikTok on Monday sued to block Montana from banning the popular video app, escalating its efforts to stop a prohibition that would be the first of its kind in the nation.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, the company said Montana’s legislation violated the First Amendment and parts of the U.S. Constitution that limit state powers. The ban was “unconstitutionally shutting down the forum for speech for all speakers on the app,” the company said in the lawsuit.
TikTok sued days after Montana’s governor, Greg Gianforte, signed the ban — which would fine the app if it operated in the state or app stores if they allowed it to be downloaded — into law.
The state law has become a test case for whether it is possible to prohibit the use of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, over national security concerns. The ban, which is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, has already raised questions about how it would be enforced within Montana’s borders.
“We are challenging Montana’s unconstitutional TikTok ban to protect our business and the hundreds of thousands of TikTok users in Montana,” Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We believe our legal challenge will prevail based on an exceedingly strong set of precedents and facts.”
Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Montana’s attorney general, Austin Knudsen, said, “We expected legal challenges and are fully prepared to defend the law that helps protect Montanans’ privacy and security.”
The lawsuit adds to those legal challenges. A group of TikTok users filed a separate suit challenging Montana’s bill on Wednesday, the day Mr. Gianforte signed it, saying it violated their First Amendment rights and outstripped the state’s legal authority. The law has also sparked an outcry from civil liberty and digital rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
TikTok, which has more than 150 million U.S. users, has been in limbo under two presidential administrations while working to quell concerns about its Chinese ownership. The company, which has been waiting for the Biden administration to approve its plan for operating in the United States, has already faced bans on government devices in more than two dozen states, as well as by universities and the military.
The Montana ban was drafted by Mr. Knudsen, a Republican, and introduced by a Republican state senator this year. Lawmakers in the state said the ban would prevent the Chinese government from gaining access to the personal information of Montanans. The debate over the ban began shortly after a Chinese spy balloon floated over the state, drawing national attention.
The new law will bar TikTok from operating the app in the state. App store operators, like Apple and Google, will also be forbidden to make it available for download in the state. TikTok, Apple and Google could face daily fines of $10,000 if they fail to comply.
In its lawsuit, TikTok said Montana lacked the legal authority to impose a ban because it would regulate commerce between states, which is the purview of the federal government. The ban also violates a constitutional prohibition on legislation that targets an individual or specific groups for punishment, the lawsuit contended.
“The TikTok ban singles out the TikTok application for this punishment, notwithstanding that the data allegedly collected by the app is no different in kind than data collected from any number of other sources and that is widely available in the data broker market,” the company said in its complaint.
Critics of the ban believe it will be difficult to enforce even if the courts don’t block it. TikTok users in Montana could still use the app if they disguised their location using virtual private network software, while Montanans living in border towns may get internet access through cell towers in other states. TechNet, a lobbying group representing Apple and Google, has said it is impossible for the app stores to restrict downloads in a single state.
Mr. Knudsen’s office said last week that TikTok could enforce the ban with technology that the online gambling industry already uses to block access to an app from a state where it is illegal.
The litigation over the ban could take months to resolve. Because the ban wouldn’t take effect until next year, there is not an immediate need for the courts to stop it from taking effect.
TikTok and its supporters have been successful in using the courts to stop a previous ban in the United States. In 2020, TikTok sued the federal government when President Donald J. Trump used his emergency economic powers to issue an executive order to block the app from operating in the United States. A judge sided with the company, and another judge blocked the ban after a challenge from a group of creators.
TikTok has been banned in some countries, including India in 2020. Britain, Canada and France recently banned the app on official government devices.