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TikTok Creators File Lawsuit Challenging Montana Ban

A group of TikTok creators in Montana have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s new ban of the app, arguing that the law signed by Governor Greg Gianforte violates their First Amendment rights.

The ban signed by Gov. Gianforte on Wednesday is the first state-level ban of the social media platform. The complaint was filed just hours later in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana Wednesday evening.

The lawsuit asserts that TikTok is comparable to other forms of media, which the state does not have the authority to keep Montanans from accessing and contributing to.

“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes.”

The group of creators stated that the new ban, set to take effect in January 2024, goes far beyond restrictions already in place in Montana and other states.

Other states have prohibited the use of TikTok on government devices, citing a potential threat to national security because of TikTok’s ties to China via its parent company ByteDance. The Montana ban extends to personal devices, making it illegal for TikTok to operate the app and for the Apple and Google app stores to offer it for download within state lines.

According to the law, TikTok could be fined $10,000 for each violation of the ban, plus another $10,000 for each day the infraction persists. Google and Apple may face the same fines.

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A spokesperson for Gov. Gianforte said in a statement that the Governor’s decision was motivated by wanting to protect “Montanans’ personal and private data being harvested by the Chinese Communist party.”

“While the Chinese Communist Party may try to hide their nefarious spying and collection of individuals’ personal, private, sensitive information under the banner of our First Amendment, the governor has an obligation to protect Montanans and their individual privacy right, as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution, from the Chinese Communist Party’s serious, grave threats.”

TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, has stated that the Chinese government has never asked TikTok for its data on users in the U.S. There has also been no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, released a statement saying that the office expects a legal challenge but is “fully prepared to defend the law.”

Emilee Cantrell, another spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office, told The New York Times that the state would enforce the ban through “geo-fencing,” which is “already in use across the gaming industry.”

“A basic internet search will show you companies that provide geolocation compliance. If companies do not comply with the ban, the agency will investigate and hold offending entities accountable in accordance with the law.”

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In addition to citing the First Amendment, the lawsuit argues that Montana’s ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving TikTok users of other rights without due process.

It also asserts that the new law violates federal authority to set foreign policy and regulate interstate commerce, undermining the federal government’s powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union described the ban as “unconstitutional.” Ramya Krishnan, a lawyer at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told The New York Times that to justify a ban and have it hold up to legal scrutiny, the state would have to demonstrate its security concerns are real.

“Many have hypothesized that China might demand that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, turn over Americans’ data or use TikTok to push disinformation in some way, but neither Montana nor the U.S. government has pointed to any evidence that China is actually doing this. That’s a problem because speculative harms can’t justify a total ban on a communications platform, particularly one that’s used by hundreds of thousands of Montanans daily.”

TikTok told Reuters that the new measure “infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok.”

“We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana.”

The five plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit include a former Marine sergeant, a rancher, a swimwear business, and an exercise influencer.

Chinese Billionaire Sun Dawu Sentenced To 18 Years In Prison 

Billionaire Sun Dawu is a vocal critic of the Chinese government. Now, Sun has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” according to an official statement published by the court. 

Sun was arrested back in March, he owns the company Hebei Dawu Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Group, which owns farming operations in China and employs about 9,000 people in poultry processing, pet food production, and other industries. 

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Sun was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to storm state institutions, obstructing public service, picking quarrels and provoking troubles, disrupting production and operation, conducting coercive trade, illegal mining, illegal occupation of agricultural land, illegal absorption of public deposits,” the People’s Court of Gaobeidian said in a statement. 

Dawu was also fined 3.11 million yuan ($480,000) as a part of his sentence. He’s one of very few powerful figures in China who has remained outspoken against the ruling communist party. He publicly accused the government of attempting to cover up the extent of the African swine flu outbreak in 2019, which killed more than 100 million pigs in the nation. 

There have also been local reports that claimed Sun was in the midst of a land dispute with a local government owned farm. Dawu claimed dozens of company employees were injured after a 2020 fight with the police when a group led by Dawu attempted to stop state farm staff from tearing down one of its buildings. 

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Chinese Human Rights Defenders is an advocacy group that recently claimed Sun was “being put on trial as a blatant attempt to punish him for his support of human rights.” 

“Sun Dawu has made extraordinary contributions to improving the life of Chinese citizens living in rural China. His support of rights defenders was an extension of his concern for the welfare of people on the margins of the Chinese economy,” said Ramona Li, senior researcher and advocate for CHRD.

Private enterprises in China have been subjected to multiple restrictive guidelines from the government in recent months. The Communist Party recently said that all private sector entrepreneurs need to be “politically sensible people who will firmly listen to the party.”

Chinese billionaire Ren Zhiqiang was also imprisoned for 18 years back in September 2020 on corruption related offenses. Ren was widely attributed to an essay that referred to Chinese president Xi Jinping as a “clown” for his coronavirus prevention strategy.

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By Removing Police-Tracking App, Apple Sides with China Over Hong Kong Protestors

On Wednesday, Apple removed an app designed to track police officers called HKmap.live from its App Store in a controversial move that is raising questions about the company’s commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy. HKmap.live was available on the App Store for just days before it was removed on the basis that it violated local laws and enabled protestors to attack the police in Hong Kong. The move came in the wake of intense criticism from state-run Chinese media, as the People’s Daily, a flagship newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, accused Apple of helping “rioters.” Apple gave a statement justifying its removal of the app, saying it had been used “to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”

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As China forms one of the most important markets for Apple and other technology companies, navigating the politics of the pro-democracy protests which have only intensified over the past several months presents a difficult situation. Companies like Apple generally strive to avoid giving the appearance of supporting or opposing political causes, though the company notes that principles like enabling private communication and protecting the security of their users’ personal data are foundational in the design of their products. However, when operating in countries that impose restrictions on human rights as a matter of law like China, Apple and other companies are often forced to make decisions that have inherently political ramifications as they balance their profit motive against the fundamental rights of their customers. Given the unprecedented intensity of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, the reluctant political involvement of large corporations has perhaps never been as consequential as it is at this juncture.

Other companies have also been drawn into the political minefield that arises when operating in China during the Hong Kong protests. An executive of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support of the protests this week, for instance, leading to an apology by the Rockets and the cancellation of broadcasts of N.B.A. games in China, one of their largest markets. And the video game company Blizzard recently banned a professional gamer who expressed support of democracy in Hong Kong during a company-sponsored livestream, forcing him to forfeit $10,000 in prize money and leading to an outcry from the gaming community and an employee walkout at Blizzard offices. The ban was necessary in order for the company to comply with China’s censorship laws, even though it plainly contradicted the company’s core values. By continuing to operate in China under their strict anti-free-speech laws, companies like Blizzard tacitly support a totalitarian regime, as withdrawing their business in China would put economic and political pressure on the Chinese government to loosen restrictions on free speech.

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Of all the companies affected in this way by the ongoing political turmoil in China, perhaps none have a more direct and significant impact on policy than Apple. As one of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers which serves more than 243 million customers in China, Apple is uniquely positioned to impact the flow of information within the authoritarian regime, particularly at a moment when that information threatens the very foundation of the country’s rule over its citizens. Though the Chinese internet is heavily censored, with a variety of social media apps banned and replaced by alternatives managed by the government, Apple nevertheless has some degree of leverage in the form of its software offerings to the Chinese people. As such, the backlash against the company for its latest capitulation to the regime is hard for the company’s socially conscious customers around the world to ignore.

However, the Chinese market remains fairly critical to Apple’s success as a whole, as the company exploits cheap labor in the country to manufacture its products at a competitive price and the Chinese consumer base is the company’s second-largest market. Furthermore, Apple has only recently begun to make headway in the country, and its recent success in the stock market has been based on a belief in the success of continued expansion in this market. As such, it’s probably not reasonable to expect that Apple will sacrifice the economic opportunity presented in China by strengthening its support of human rights with its technology, despite the international outcry. That being said, the company’s PR efforts to depict itself as friendly to human rights is likely to ramp up in the coming weeks in response to the public damage to its image caused by its complacency in the ongoing political crisis.