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TikTok tries to block Trump administration’s app store ban

TikTok on Sunday asked a federal judge to block the Trump administration from forcing Apple and Google to remove the video app from their US app stores ahead of a ban scheduled to come into effect at midnight.

The US commerce department had ordered TikTok to be removed last Sunday. But it extended the deadline after President Donald Trump gave preliminary approval for an agreement that would involve ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the app, giving a minority ownership stake to Oracle and Walmart.

ByteDance was forced to come up with a proposal after the US raised concern that Chinese ownership of TikTok could make it easier for China to spy on US citizens by forcing the company to hand over data on its users.

ByteDance and the US companies have until November 12 to finalise a deal under an executive order Mr Trump issued in August.

In a rare Sunday court hearing, lawyers for TikTok argued that banning the app now was senseless given that the companies remained in negotiations with the US government to address its national security concerns.

“How does it make sense to impose this app store ban tonight when there are negotiations under way that might make it unnecessary,” said John Hall, a Covington and Burling lawyer representing TikTok.

“This is just a blunt way to whack the company now while doing nothing to achieve the stated objective of the purpose.”

The administration responded that TikTok posed an “immediate national security threat” that needed to be addressed, even as ByteDance continued negotiations.

“It is a risk today and deserves to be addressed today even while other things are being played out,” Daniel Schwei for the US Department of Justice told Judge Carl Nichols in a hearing in front of a district court in Washington DC.

The battle is just the latest salvo in an escalating tech war that Washington has launched with China. The commerce department last week took aim at Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, telling companies which export to China’s biggest chipmaker of an unacceptable risk that technology would be diverted to “military end use”.

Mr Trump in August threatened to ban TikTok over concerns that it potentially gave the Chinese government access to the private data of millions of Americans. But he later changed tack, saying he would allow the app to operate in America as long as ByteDance sold it to a US company.

Although the president last week gave his preliminary blessing, he has also raised concerns about the structure of the deal. Under the proposal, Oracle and Walmart would take a 20 per cent stake in a new US-based company that would operate TikTok across the world and would at some point be listed on one of the US stock exchanges.

The companies have also sowed confusion. Oracle said ByteDance would have “no ownership” in TikTok Global, but the Chinese company said it would hold an 80 per cent stake.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US — an inter-agency panel that can block deals on security grounds — is evaluating the proposal. But the deal is also subject to scrutiny in China because of a new export control law introduced by Beijing.

ByteDance earlier this week applied to the Chinese government for a licence to export the technology that powers TikTok, including the critical algorithm that determines what videos appear when someone is using the app. The new law gives China the power to block technology transfers that could also end up scuppering the deal.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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