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US-China tensions

Pressure on TikTok talks eased after court blocks Trump's ban

Injunctions trip up US strategy on China, as judges demand better security case

U.S. President Donald Trump's attempts to ban Chinese-owned platforms TikTok and WeChat have been stymied by American courts.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S./WASHINGTON -- Sunday's last-minute court ruling that temporarily blocks President Donald Trump's order to bar TikTok from app stores has upended U.S. efforts to force a sale of the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing platform.

Trump signed an executive order Aug. 6 to bar any transactions with TikTok owner ByteDance or its subsidiaries after 45 days. With a ban looking likely as the deadline loomed Sunday night, a U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction against an order that would have forced Google and Apple to remove the TikTok app from their stores, granting a partial reprieve.

A final ruling to settle issues such as whether a ban would violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech and expression will take some time. But even the temporary halt delivers a setback for Trump's China strategy, as courts show skepticism of the administration's conflating of economic and security concerns.

"I am very happy that the court has granted an injunction preventing the implementation of the TikTok ban that would have prohibited new users to download the app," interim CEO Vanessa Pappas tweeted afterward. "We will continue to seek to protect the rights of our users, partners, artists, employees, businesses, and creators."

The order followed another District Court ruling this month that halted Trump's planned ban of WeChat, a messaging platform owned by China's Tencent Holdings.

Washington has expressed alarm that users' personal information might leak to China via these apps, with particular emphasis on TikTok, which is used by 100 million people each month in the U.S. alone. The Commerce Department said Sunday the government will "vigorously defend" the executive order and efforts to implement it, suggesting that an appeal is in the offing.

Trump said in late July that he planned to ban TikTok, and later pressed for the service to be sold to a U.S. company or face exclusion from the American market. These threats, along with the deadline set by last month's executive order, spurred negotiations that produced a broad agreement to create a new company for TikTok's international operations that would be 20% owned by Oracle and Walmart.

But a final deal has been slower to arrive, as the American and Chinese sides have yet to settle differences on specifics including ownership stakes and the composition of the board. Sunday's ruling removed the deadline as a factor for now, making it tougher for the U.S. to apply the same sort of pressure.

Regulators in the U.S. and China pose another potential roadblock. Though ByteDance has submitted proposals to Chinese authorities, there have been suggestions that Beijing could put off the approval process.

The blocked bans suggest a turning point for Washington's aggressive strategy toward Beijing, some observers say. Courts had largely accepted U.S. arguments for other measures such as shutting out Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies and imposing additional duties on steel and aluminum imports, but the app cases have not gone as planned.

Many of Trump's executive orders, including the attempted WeChat and TikTok bans, invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 law that grants the president broad authority to regulate international commerce in response to emergencies such as terrorist attacks. Trump's frequent use of these powers has sparked controversy in the past as well.

The TikTok and WeChat rulings show that simply citing national security concerns will not be enough for the administration to get courts to support its policy objectives.

In the order blocking the WeChat ban, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote that "while the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China (regarding technology and mobile technology) is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest."

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