Missoula business owner challenging TikTok ban weighs in on federal legislation

Alario TikTok
Gemini Mountain Swimwear
Gemini Mountain Swimwear
Posted at 5:47 PM, Apr 23, 2024

MISSOULA — The latest version of legislation that would force the app TikTok to be sold or face a nationwide ban appears to be on course to pass Congress by Wednesday.

An earlier proposal passed the U.S. House last month, but hadn’t progressed in the Senate. However, the policy is now moving quickly, after it was attached to a major foreign aid package that included billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

This comes as a disappointment to TikTok users who have protested against a possible ban. One of them is Samantha Alario, owner of Gemini Mountain Swimwear in Missoula.

“I do not think that they're taking into account the economical value that holds the app for a lot of the small businesses, for a lot of content creators, for a lot of single moms out there,” she said.

Alario started Gemini in 2015.

“We make sustainable swimwear designed for women – but most notably mountain women – to help them feel more comfortable, confident and looking one of a kind,” she said. “100% of the production is done here in Missoula, Montana.”

Gemini Mountain Swimwear
Samantha Alario, owner of Gemini Mountain Swimwear in Missoula, credits her posts on TikTok with bringing attention to her business.

She says social media has been a big part of promoting her business. She started with Facebook and Instagram, and in 2019, she started posting to TikTok – and she says the impact on her business was obvious.

“You could just get millions of views, hundreds of thousands of views,” she said. “I went viral a couple of times in 2020, and so that's where I got 20,000 followers.”

Alario says, on TikTok, she experimented a lot with marketing. She found success with behind-the-scenes videos of her products and “day in the life” videos about her work. One popular video focused on sustainability, with a fabric she uses for her bikinis made from recycled plastic.

“That's what's so beautiful about their algorithm, is that anything has a chance of going viral,” said Alario.

But in 2023, Alario heard the Montana Legislature was considering Senate Bill 419, which would ban TikTok within the state. She says she reached out to elected leaders to advocate against the bill. Once Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it into law, she was one of five Montana-based content creators who filed a federal lawsuit – claiming the ban violated their First Amendment rights. Because the plaintiffs are listed in alphabetical order, the case is officially known as Alario, et al. v. Knudsen – with Attorney General Austin Knudsen as the lead defendant.

In November, a federal district judge sided with the plaintiffs and issued a preliminary injunction, stopping the state from enforcing the ban. The state has appealed that decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Plaintiffs’ opening brief in the appeal will be due next week.

Supporters of SB 419 and the federal TikTok legislation have cited concerns that it could put users’ data at risk. The app’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China, and Congress has probed claims that officials from the Chinese Communist Party might be able to access information on U.S. users. TikTok has repeatedly denied those accusations.

The current federal bill would give ByteDance nine months to sell the app to a company outside China, with a possible three-month extension. If they haven’t sold it by the end of that period, TikTok could lose access to U.S. app stores and internet hosting services.

While the federal bill is not officially called a ban and Montana’s is, SB 419 also includes a provision voiding it if TikTok is sold to a company not based in China or another “foreign adversary.”

Alario said she was disappointed when the federal legislation suddenly came up for discussion.

“That's kind of why all of the plaintiffs in the Montana case stepped up, is because we knew that if it passed in Montana, it was going to pass everywhere else,” she said. “And so we did our hardest and so did those lawyers, and it didn't get passed – and it still got passed everywhere else. So it's just a bit of a bummer.”

Gemini Mountain Swimwear
Samantha Alario, owner of Gemini Mountain Swimwear in Missoula, credits her posts on TikTok with bringing attention to her business.

She said she sees the concerns about TikTok’s data security as “fearmongering.”

“I'm all about data privacy, but if we actually care about data privacy, then we should be creating laws that are monitoring every app and what they do with our data, and not just TikTok,” she said.

Alario said losing access to that platform and the views that go along with it would be a blow to businesses like hers.

“Social media allows me to sell outside of my state – allows me to have a year-round business selling bikinis,” she said. “I can't do that without social media. So for the state and for the country to be taking that away, they're literally taking away money from the economy.”