U.S. Judge Halts Trump's TikTok Ban, Hours Before It Was Set To Start
Updated 8:56 p.m. ET Sunday
A federal judge on Sunday temporarily blocked President Trump's TikTok ban, granting a temporary reprieve to the wildly popular video-sharing app.
During a telephone court hearing on Sunday, lawyers for TikTok argued that Trump's clampdown infringed on free speech and due process rights.
John Hall, an attorney for TikTok, argued that the app, with some 100 million American users, is a "modern day version of the town square" and shutting it down is akin to silencing speech.
Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, responded by halting the ban, which was set to kick in at midnight Sunday.
The action from the White House would have forced TikTok to be removed from smartphone app stores, meaning TikTok could not reach new users, and those who already had it would be deprived of app updates, eventually rendering it nonfunctional.
Nichols denied a request to extend a Nov. 12 deadline for TikTok to spin off its U.S. operations to an American company, or face possible extinction in the country.
In a statement, TikTok said it is pleased the court sided with its legal arguments.
"We will continue defending our rights for the benefit of our community and employees. At the same time, we will also maintain our ongoing dialogue with the government to turn our proposal, which the President gave his preliminary approval to last weekend, into an agreement," a TikTok spokeswoman said.
The judge's move means the Chinese-owned TikTok can now operate without interruption at least until a full court hearing. Nicholas' opinion supporting his decision was not immediately released. A full hearing date on the case has not yet been set.
The U.S.-TikTok row started with an executive order blacklisting the app on Aug. 6, when the president invoked a national economic emergency, citing national security reasons.
In its court filing, TikTok's lawyers said there's no credible evidence to back up Trump's national security claims. Instead, TikTok's legal team accused the president of being driven by "political-related animus" for "political campaign fodder."
"It would be no different than the government locking the doors to a public forum, roping off that town square," Hall said on Sunday.
"Telling two-thirds of the country, who are not members of this community, that you're not going to be permitted in," Hall told the judge. "The government would be taking this extraordinary action at the very time that the need for free, open and accessible communication in America is at its zenith — 37 days before a national election."
U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Daniel Schwei countered that any free speech concerns are "completely irrelevant" to the president's national security prerogatives.
"The concern here is about data security risk and leaving data vulnerable to access by the Chinese government," Schwei said. "This is the most immediate national security threat. It is a threat today."
The White House fears China's authoritarian regime could gain access to the data TikTok collects and use it to spy on or blackmail Americans. Trump officials have called the chief executive of TikTok parent company ByteDance a "mouthpiece" of China's Communist Party. So far, U.S. officials have not offered direct proof that China has ever sought TikTok data.
TikTok, for its part, says it would deny any data requests from Beijing, pointing to how Americans' data is stored mostly in the U.S. and decisions about the data are made by a U.S.-led team.
The judge handing a temporary victory to TikTok follows the actions of another judge, in Northern California, who paused enforcement of the president's ban of a separate Chinese-owned app, WeChat. In that case, the judge found that the Trump administration offered "scant evidence" to support its national security fears.
Even a ban of six months, TikTok has said, would be devastating. TikTok's interim global head Vanessa Pappas estimated that 90% of TikTok users would quit if the app went dark for that amount of time.
Trump has indicated that he would back off his push to outlaw TikTok if its U.S. operations were sold to an American company. Software company Oracle and Walmart received tentative approval from the president in a deal to rescue the app, but since then, ByteDance and the American companies appear at odds over the new company's ownership structure.
Any agreement would need the blessing of the Chinese government, something that looks increasingly in doubt. On Saturday, the Global Times, an outlet of China's Communist Party, called Trump's crackdown on TikTok a "mafia-style robbery of a lucrative Chinese business" and that the Oracle deal was not likely to be approved.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.