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The US government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future

Catherine Shu and Rita Liao
·3-min read

The fate of TikTok in the United States got even more confusing this week. The U.S. Justice and Commerce Departments sent conflicting messages today about TikTok's future, which is now up in the air with the upcoming administration transition.

The Department of Commerce said Thursday it would abide by an injunction issued October 30 by the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that would have blocked TikTok from operating in the U.S. starting from today. In a statement, the department said it is complying with the court's order and its prohibition against TikTok "HAS BEEN ENJOINED, and WILL NOT GO INTO EFFECT, pending further legal developments."

But on the same day, the Justice Department appealed the Pennsylvania court's ruling just as it was set to go into effect.

But wait! It gets even more convoluted: Another court -- the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington -- just set new deadlines in December for ByteDance, TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, and the Trump administration, to file documents in a case involving a divestment order that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok to continue operating in the U.S.

ByteDance reached an agreement with Oracle and Walmart in September, but the future of the deal is also uncertain.

The Justice Department's appeal is part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government on September 18 by three TikTok creators, Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers. Each has more than a million followers on TikTok, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., and argues that a ban would impact their ability to earn a living from brand collaborations on the app.

On October 30, Judge Wendy Beetlestone issued an injunction against the U.S. government’s restrictions. In her ruling, Beetlestone wrote that the "government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posted by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical."

This case is separate from the one ByteDance filed against the U.S. government in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. Earlier this week, ByteDance asked that court to vacate the U.S. order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations. ByteDance told TechCrunch in a statement that without an extension on the November 12 deadline, it “[had] no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the U.S.”

The Commerce Department’s statement today, along with the Justice Department’s appeal and the new deadlines in the divestment case, underscore the confusion about the future of the Trump administration’s actions against TikTok after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.

While some analysts believe the Biden administration may give Chinese tech companies that were targeted under the current administration, including Huawei and ByteDance, a chance to re-negotiate with the government, that may take second priority as Biden deals with domestic issues, including the resurgence of COVID-19 in the U.S.