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Federal judge blocks Montana's first-in-nation TikTok ban

A federal judge issued an order Thursday blocking Montana's first-of-its-kind ban on social media platform TikTok, preventing the ban from taking effect as scheduled on Jan. 1.

The ban, which passed this year's Legislature as Senate Bill 419, would have barred TikTok from making its app available to Montana users. By blocking the ban while a legal challenge moves forward, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy signals that he believes the company and other plaintiffs have a good chance of prevailing once he hears further arguments and decides the ultimate case.

"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.

"This is especially apparent in that the same legislature enacted an entirely separate law that purports to broadly protect consumers' digital data and privacy," the judge continued, referring to a measure that will give the attorney general power to police data sharing privacy violations when most of its provisions take effect next year.

The ban was championed by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who pushed back amendments suggested by the office of Gov. Greg Gianforte, a fellow Republican, that would have broadened the ban to include other social media companies - partly so it would have been easier to defend in court.

Knudsen and other ban supporters had argued that the platform represents a major privacy risk for its Montana users and poses a threat to national security, in addition to inspiring teenagers to participate in dangerous viral challenges. Gianforte signed the supporters' preferred version of the ban, the first of its kind in the nation, into law May 17.

TikTok, which is owned by China-based parent company ByteDance, and several Montana users responded to the law by filing lawsuits that were eventually combined into a single case. They argue the ban infringes on their First Amendment free speech protections and also represents an inappropriate intrusion by state government into national security concerns that are properly the domain of the federal government.

Molloy, who heard oral arguments on the legal challenge to the ban in Missoula Oct. 12, wrote in Thursday's order that he was persuaded that the plaintiffs have a good enough case to justify preventing the ban from taking effect for the time being.

Contrary to the state's position, Molloy wrote, banning TikTok likely would hamper free speech protected by the First Amendment. He added that the state's attorneys hadn't presented persuasive evidence supporting the notion that the bill was rooted in consumer protection concerns and that other social media companies, such as U.S.-based Facebook-parent Meta, have also come under scrutiny for selling customer data to third parties.

"Banning TikTok outright to support a factually unsupported interest is a clear example of a regulation that burdens more speech than is necessary," the judge wrote.

During oral arguments, Montana Solicitor General Christian Corrigan tried to defend the law as a consumer protection measure that should be considered firmly within the bounds of the state's power to protect its residents.

"The Montana Legislature responded to serious, widespread concerns about data privacy," Corrigan said.

Knudsen spokesperson Emilee Cantrell stressed in an email Thursday that the ruling is still a preliminary judgment on the case.

"The judge indicated several times that the analysis could change as the case proceeds and the State has the opportunity to present a full factual record," Cantrell wrote. "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."

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