On May 17, 2023, Montana became the first U.S. state to ban TikTok. The bill, SB419, was passed by the Montana House of Representatives in a 54 – 43 vote and signed by Governor Greg Gianforte (R-MT). The legislation outlaws TikTok from being used within Montana state lines. TikTok parent company ByteDance and App stores that offer TikTok in Montana could be fined as much as $10,000 for every day they host the service. Users will not be penalized.
While the ban does not go into effect until January 1, 2024, it’s expected to be met with judicial challenges. TikTok itself has already filed one such suit, claiming that the ban is an infringement on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Commerce Clause.
After signing the legislation, Gianforte claimed that it will “protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party.” ByteDance is based in China and maintains an analogue service called Douyin. CEO Shou Zi Chew maintains that TikTok has never shared data about U.S. users with the Chinese government and will never do so, but many U.S. officials remain unconvinced.
TikTok told CNN: “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.”
Cybersecurity experts told PBS that the ban will be “extremely difficult—if not impossible—to adequately enforce.” However, that won’t be the case if the ban moves out of Montana. A bill, supported by 12 senators from both major parties, would give the Commerce Secretary the power to target companies in “foreign adversary” nations. The bill has been described as an attempt at a federal TikTok ban.
All social media can be repurposed as a marketing platform, and TikTok is no different. Shutting it down means closing off a path to exposure for professionals.
Alyssa Webb, an agent with Real Broker LLC based in Billings, Montana, uses TikTok (@montanarealestatemom) for both fun and business. “I like to share information with the public on buying a home. I even share my listings,” says Webb, who has been able to find interested buyers for her listings from TikTok.
As Webb notes, TikTok is most popular with Gen Z, the up-and-coming generation of homebuyers. This makes it especially useful for agents looking to reach or educate younger buyers.
Randy Baruh, an agent with New York City-based The Corcoran Group, has built a following of 300,000-plus on TikTok (@randy_baruh) with comedy sketches and tours set in the luxury apartments he sells. Baruh, who agreed that this is a “thorny issue,” spoke to both sides of concern.
“I don’t like our profiles, our personal information, being able to be shared with a foreign country to use to influence us or any other country,” says Baruh. “At the same time, it’s scary to think that a state government can limit our access to a tool that allows us to enjoy our right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech…If they could do it to TikTok, then they can do it to YouTube, then they can do it to Instagram and Facebook.”
Another concern Baruh is sympathetic toward is TikTok’s accessibility to children and the type of content they can see on the platform.
“I was born in 1970,” says Baruh, “and I lived most of my life without social media. You hear so much coming out about how damaging social media can be to the brain development, mental health development of kids and adolescents. I have a 10 year old and a six year old, and we put limits on their access to social media…I’m 100% behind the idea that corporations that own these giant social media companies should have some sort of responsibility for what is on their platforms.”
Baruh’s comment about platform regulation refers to Section 230 of Title 47 of the U.S. Code. The law of the land since 1996, this gives platforms like TikTok immunity from ramifications against what third parties post on them. There has been ongoing debate about this and efforts to repeal it, with the Supreme Court recently declining to revise it.
How does this ban stand to affect Webb’s business and—if enacted federally—Baruh’s?
Webb feels that the Montana TikTok ban could limit her ability to network. After all, the platform’s reach doesn’t extend only to clients.
“I have connected with a ton of people across the country, and not even just clients, but networking with other agents,” says Webb. “Networking with other agents is huge, and being able to have an agent to refer my clients to when they move to North Carolina or Texas.”
Baruh makes it clear that while no TikTok could put a dent in his business, it definitely won’t sink it.
“I don’t think I would lose my ability to sell 123 Banana Street, apartment 111. The buyers that are interested in a given property are still going to come to that given property. But I think that if I do a tour of that property and 20,000 people see it on TikTok, and maybe I get some calls for that property from TikTok, that will certainly have an impact.”
Baruh also noted that should TikTok go away, something new would definitely emerge to fill the void. The only question, and it’s one real estate professionals should pay attention to, is what that new thing could be.