People in Montana will soon need a TikTok VPN to keep accessing the app

People in Montana will soon need a TikTok VPN to keep accessing the app, but they won’t have to move to another state or buy new devices. That’s because lawmakers have opted to block downloads of the app in Montana, setting up an unprecedented legal battle over free speech that could determine whether similar restrictions become widespread across the US.

A Montana law passed this week prohibits users from downloading the popular video app, citing fears that the social media platform’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, shares personal data with the Chinese government. The bill also requires app stores such as Apple’s and Google’s to prevent users in the state from accessing TikTok and imposes fines on any “entity” — including an app store or TikTok — that violates the law. The penalties won’t apply to individual users, but critics say the ban amounts to censorship and will only encourage Beijing’s surveillance of Westerners in the US.

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, would use geofencing technology to target apps with ties to China, and it’s unclear whether the tech will work. The attorney general’s office points to the same technology used to restrict online sports gambling apps and says anyone can report violations. If it does, the state can send a cease-and-desist letter to the app’s developer.

But the tech industry has argued that it’s not up to app stores to block apps on a state-by-state basis and would be impossible for them to do so given that many Montana residents have billing addresses outside of the state. In addition, app stores like Apple and Google would need to rely on other methods of blocking – such as encrypting data traffic or using proxy servers – to block apps that aren’t approved for their markets.

TikTok has fought back against the ban with a multi-million dollar campaign that includes ads, billboards and even hiring lobbyists. The company argues that the ban shows that state officials don’t support local businesses, which use the app to promote products and services. One such business, Shauna White Bear of White Bear Moccasins in Missoula, told a legislative committee that the ban was unfair and would damage her sales.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which it believes singles out an individual app for punishment and violates a constitutional prohibition against laws that attempt to advance foreign policy goals by regulating commerce between states. The case is expected to be heard next year. In the meantime, TikTok has urged its users to sign a petition against the ban. It has also partnered with nonprofit organizations to provide free TikTok subscriptions for Montana families and students. Those subscribers will be able to use a VPN, or virtual private network, to connect to servers in countries where the app is still available. A VPN will also boost your overall internet privacy by encrypting data traffic and preventing your ISP or local network from snooping on what you’re doing on the web.