U.S. Likely Exceeded Authority in TikTok Ban, Judge Says

The judge said that the 1970s national security law President Trump invoked to pursue the TikTok ban prohibits restrictions on exchanges of informational materials.

Photo: chris delmas/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—The federal judge who stopped the Trump administration’s download ban on video-sharing app TikTok determined that the government likely overstepped its authority under national security law, according to his decision made public Monday.

Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., granted a preliminary injunction against the ban late Sunday. In his 18-page ruling released Monday, the judge said the 1970s International Emergency Economic Powers Act—which President Trump invoked to pursue the TikTok ban—prohibits restrictions on exchanges of informational materials.

In his ruling, the judge sided with attorneys for TikTok and its owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., in determining that the ban’s restrictions “likely exceed the lawful bounds proscribed by IEEPA.”

Banning TikTok downloads while the app’s lawyers argue about the law in court would harm its business by freezing its user base, hurting employee recruitment and damaging its relationships with commercial partners and advertisers, he said.

“TikTok has proffered unrebutted evidence that uncertainty in TikTok’s future availability has already driven, and will continue to drive, content creators and fans to other platforms,” Judge Nichols wrote. “The nature of social media is also such that users are unlikely to return to platforms that they have abandoned.”

The Trump administration contends that the data TikTok collects from U.S. users could be shared with the Chinese government. TikTok has said it would never hand over such data.

Sunday’s decision gives ByteDance more time to win approval from U.S. and Chinese authorities for a deal to form a new company called TikTok Global, to be based in the U.S., in partnership with Oracle Corp. , Walmart Inc. and other investors. That deal could add data security safeguards and eliminate the proposed restrictions on TikTok’s operations in the U.S.

The Commerce Department, tasked with implementing the ban Mr. Trump ordered, said in a statement Sunday that it would comply with the injunction but plans to defend its implementation efforts from other legal challenges.

Judge Nichols said the government “provided ample evidence that China presents a significant national security threat.” But evidence for the threat posed by TikTok and the need for a ban “remains less substantial,” said the judge, who joined the bench last year after Mr. Trump nominated him.

Sunday’s ruling marks the second time in recent weeks that a federal judge struck down the administration’s attempt to limit the U.S. use of Chinese-owned apps.

On Sept. 20, a California judge also stopped the Trump administration from implementing restrictions meant to curb Americans’ use of WeChat, a popular Chinese-owned messaging and e-commerce app. Several WeChat users sued over those restrictions.

With her order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler cited a different concern when she put the ban on hold: preserving the flow of constitutionally protected free speech under the First Amendment. In her 22-page order, she said she’s convinced that “there are no viable substitute platforms or apps for the Chinese-speaking and Chinese-American community.”

Commerce officials on Thursday released additional details about their national security concerns and asked Judge Beeler to reconsider her order. She set an Oct. 15 hearing to review that request.

Video-sharing app TikTok has come to rival some of the world’s most popular social-media platforms in just a few years. WSJ looks at how Chinese startup ByteDance took TikTok to the masses and why it attracted regulatory scrutiny. Video/illustration: Jaden Urbi/WSJ

Write to Katy Stech Ferek at katherine.stech@wsj.com

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Appeared in the September 29, 2020, print edition as ‘Judge Says TikTok Download Ban Likely Exceeded Authority.’


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