Montana’s arbitrary TikTok ban highlights need for federal regulation

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has proposed a new regulatory framework to protect online information spaces. Such a framework would prevent the kind of legal battles now developing between the state of Montana and TikTok.

Montana became the first US state to ban TikTok on May 17th in order “to protect Montanans’ personal, private, and sensitive data and information from intelligence gathering by the Chinese Communist Party. The video sharing app will be prohibited from any activity within the state. Using it or offering it on any platform for downloading will also be banned. Inevitably, TikTok filed a legal challenge to the law on May 22nd, arguing that it violates its right to freedom of expression under the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

RSF deplores a situation that underlines the lack of a clear legal framework regulating online spaces and calls on Washington to adopt the system for protecting democratic information spaces designed by RSF.

“When the right to information is at stake, it is advisable to avoid decisions motivated by expediency or politics, as is the case in Montana. This situation is a demonstration of the need to establish an appropriate legal framework for dealing with online platforms and media that are under the real or supposed tutelage of despotic regimes. We propose developing a system for protecting democratic information spaces and we urge the US government to adopt it.”

Christophe Deloire

RSF secretary-general

Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok has been in the sights of US lawmakers for months. Many accuse it of being a Chinese government influence tool. It has been banned from the work phones of many federal agency employees since TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the US Congress in March. These decisions have been made for political reasons unrelated to any legal framework.

RSF developed a system for protecting information spaces precisely to avoid these conflicts. In practice, “closed” countries like China exercise draconian control over their internal information space while distributing content without any restrictions or regulation in other countries. At the same time, democratic countries are permeable to influence operations by authoritarian regimes.

The legal framework proposed by RSF includes a reciprocity mechanism designed to encourage openness and to promote independent, pluralistic and reliable information. By conditioning access to its information space on reciprocity, the United States would have an additional negotiating lever to get the Chinese government to open up its domestic information space.

As a regulatory tool, the proposed system for protecting information spaces would make it possible to avoid the pitfall in which Montana now finds itself and to which other US states are already being drawn.

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Updated on 23.05.2023