WASHINGTON, DC: A US judge in Washington late on Sunday (Sep 27) temporarily blocked a Trump administration order that was set to bar Apple and Google from offering Chinese-owned short video-sharing app TikTok for download at 11.59pm on Sunday local time.
US District Judge Carl Nichols, a nominee of President Donald Trump, who joined the court last year, said in a brief order he was issuing a preliminary injunction to prevent the TikTok app store ban from taking effect.
Nichols declined "at this time" to block other Commerce Department restrictions set to take effect on Nov 12 that TikTok has warned would have the impact of making the app unusable in the United States.
The opinion was sealed, so no reason for the decision was released in a brief order by the court in Washington, DC. The judge may unseal portions of the order after consulting with lawyers from both sides.
The decision represents a temporary win for TikTok, which has 100 million US users. But the court has yet to consider the merits of the legal arguments on whether the social platform should remain available to Americans.
TikTok has argued that even a temporary ban would be devastating and cause the company irreparable harm by stunting its growth and hurting its commercial reputation.
"We're pleased that the court agreed with our legal arguments and issued an injunction," TikTok said in a statement.
"We will continue defending our rights for the benefit of our community and employees."
For the injunction, Nichols heard arguments on the free-speech and national security implications of the Trump ban on the Chinese-owned app in a rare Sunday telephone hearing.
John E Hall, a lawyer for TikTok, had argued during the 90-minute hearing that the ban was "unprecedented" and "irrational".
"How does it make sense to impose this app store ban tonight when there are negotiations under way that might make it unnecessary?" Hall said during the hearing.
"This is just punitive. This is just a blunt way to whack the company ... There is simply no urgency here."
Government lawyers argued the president has a right to take national security actions, and said the ban was needed because of TikTok's links to the Chinese government through its parent firm ByteDance.
A government brief called ByteDance "a mouthpiece" for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and said it was "committed to promoting the CCP's agenda and messaging".
After the judge's order, the Commerce Department said in a statement it would comply with the injunction but "intends to vigorously defend the (executive order) ... from legal challenges".
IMPLICATIONS FOR INTERNET
An amicus brief filed by Netchoice, a trade group which includes Google, Facebook and Twitter, said a ban could have important implications for the global Internet.
"The government's actions are unprecedented in scope," the group said in its filing.
A ban would "also create a dangerous precedent" for the open Internet, the brief said.
"The prohibition on any use of TikTok code by US developers for any purpose is effectively a ban on the building blocks of digital free expression."
The trade group said a TikTok ban may be cited by China or other countries "as justification for banning or restricting the activities of US Internet businesses, including US-based social media platforms".
US officials have expressed national security concerns that personal data collected on 100 million Americans who use the app could be obtained by the CCP government.
ByteDance said on Sep 20 it made a preliminary deal for Walmart and Oracle to take stakes in a new company, TikTok Global, that would oversee US operations. Negotiations continue over the terms of the agreement and to resolve concerns from Washington and Beijing.
The deal is still to be reviewed by the US government's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
The Justice Department said a preliminary injunction allowing Americans to continue downloading the TikTok app would be "interfering with a formal national security judgment of the president; altering the landscape with respect to ongoing CFIUS negotiations; and continuing to allow sensitive and valuable user information to flow to ByteDance with respect to all new users".
On Sep 19, the Commerce Department delayed the ban to give the companies an additional week to finalise a deal.
TikTok argues the restrictions, amid rising US-China tensions under the Trump administration, "were not motivated by a genuine national security concern, but rather by political considerations relating to the upcoming general election".
Another US judge, in Pennsylvania, on Saturday rejected a bid by three TikTok content creators to block the ban, while a judge in California has blocked a similar order from taking effect on Tencent Holdings' WeChat app.