TikTok, the Chinese-owned popular video-sharing app caught in the midst of US-China tensions, temporarily dodged a ban Thursday that would have meant the shutting of its US operations and saw the deadline for the sale of its US operations moved until next month at the earliest.
The US Department of Commerce announced it would not enact the ban – scheduled to go into effect at midnight – that would have prevented US service providers from enabling users to gain access to TikTok, which would effectively force the app to shut down operations in the country.
Additionally, a federal appeal court extended the deadline – also Thursday at midnight – requiring the app’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell TikTok’s US operations to an American owner. That deadline had been set by US President Donald Trump in an executive order in August, saying that the app presented a national security risk.
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The Commerce Department said it was prohibited from instituting the ban after a ruling by US District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia on October 30 in a case brought by three TikTok users.
The government appealed that ruling on Thursday, and in a statement, the department said that its ban would not go into effect ‘pending further legal developments’.
And the US Court of Appeals in Washington, in responding to a petition by TikTok, effectively rendered the Thursday sale deadline moot by ruling that ByteDance and the US government have until December 14 to submit additional documents as part of the court case TikTok has brought against the forced sale.
The last-minute extension came after ByteDance filed a petition on Tuesday seeking a review of President Trump’s divestment order, contending that it was unlawful. The company said in its filing that it had not heard from the government since Friday about its request to extend the deadline for a sale by 30 days.
ByteDance has struck a deal to sell TikTok stakes to Oracle and Walmart, but a deal has not been completed, pending the government’s approval.
A TikTok representative did not respond to an email request for comment.
The legal maneuverings were only the latest in a series of actions the US has brought against TikTok.
In September, Judge Carl Nichols in Washington ruled against an earlier threatened ban, which would have prohibited new US downloads of the app, granting TikTok a preliminary injunction. The judge found that Trump had likely overstepped his authority to invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and had also probably violated constitutional free-speech protections.
James Lewis, technology practice lead at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the TikTok ban was “DOA [dead on arrival} because of the court actions.
“A ban on app stores was always a stretch and legally dodgy,” he added.
The US government contends that TikTok, as well as WeChat, the messaging app owned by Tencent, pose national security risks because under Chinese law, the companies could be required to turn over users’ personal data to the Chinese government. Both TikTok and WeChat have denied the allegations, and TikTok says that its data is not subject to Chinese law, since its storage centres are located outside China.
Washington has increased its efforts to crack down on Chinese tech companies as it races to dominate next-generation technologies. Mobile apps have been a recent target, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing a “Clean Network” initiative in August, a bid to remove what Pompeo called untrusted applications from US app stores.
Apps from China “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation,” Pompeo said.
Last month, Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced legislation that would create guidelines concerning data protection for foreign apps.
Under the measure, apps such as TikTok would be obliged to store all American user data in the US and would need to display a detailed warning label. Parent companies of these apps would also need to disclose certain information to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
In a court filing unsealed on November 2, the US government said that ByteDance had stored some TikTok user data in US-based servers leased by China Unicom – a state-owned Chinese telecom company – and thus had introduced “significant risks”.
The government also argued that TikTok failed to demonstrate that the ban would cause “irreparable harm”.
Even if the companies are able to prove such damages, national security concerns remain, the Justice Department lawyers argued.
“The president explained that TikTok’s data-collection practices ‘threaten to allow to Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information’, which could permit that foreign government to ‘build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage’.”
“Given the strong national security harms implicated here, plaintiff’s request for emergency relief should be denied,” they said.
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