By Brett Wilkins, August 24, 2020

The popular video sharing app TikTok announced on Monday that it is suing the United States government over an executive order from President Donald Trump banning the app because he claims it is a “national security threat.”

The federal lawsuit, filed in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, claims that Trump’s executive action will effectively ban TikTok in the US in violation of the company’s right to due process. Lawyers for TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, argue that the president exceeded his authority by issuing the order, which also violates the company’s First Amendment right to free speech as expressed in this case by computer code.

The administration, which has been characterized by anti-China rhetoric and policies and actions in such diverse fields as trade, militarism and the coronavirus pandemic, says TikTok poses a “national security threat” because ByteDance could share Americans’ personal data with the authoritarian government in Beijing.

Under the president’s order, it will be a crime for any US citizen to have business transactions with TikTok. This would very likely force companies like Google and Apple to stop offering it on their respective app stores. Violators could be fined up to $300,000, and could face additional penalties including criminal charges.

TikTok said it “had no choice” but to sue.

“We do not take suing the government lightly; however, we feel we have no choice but to take action to protect our rights, and the rights of our community and employees,” the company said in the lawsuit. “Our more than 1,500 employees across the US pour their hearts into building this platform every day.”

TikTok added that it has enacted  “extraordinary measures” to protect the privacy of its US users, who now number more than 100 million. The company also touted its plans to hire more than 10,000 more employees in eight US states in the coming years.

“The executive order seeks to ban TikTok purportedly because of the speculative possibility that the application could be manipulated by the Chinese government,” the lawsuit states, alleging that the Trump administration is motivated not by a legitimate security risk but rather by a desire “to further the president’s anti-China political campaign.”

“Independent national security and information security experts have criticized the political nature of this executive order, and expressed doubt as to whether its stated national security objective is genuine,” the lawsuit states.

Although TikTok does, like many apps, collect user data, it reserves the right to share that information with its Chinese owners. However, the company questioned how much intelligence value its content — which typically consists of lighthearted dance videos — has to Beijing.

“The vast majority of TikTok videos could not reasonably be construed to in any way relate to national security, nor is its user data more susceptible to collection by Chinese authorities than from any number of other sources,” the lawsuit states.

At least one of TikTok’s competitors says it believes the Chinese-owned company poses a security threat. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg raised concerns about Chinese tech companies during a speech about freedom of expression in Washington, DC last year, singling out TikTok for criticism. Zuckerberg pressed his point to lawmakers and lobbyists, as well as at a private White House dinner last October, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Critics note that Facebook, which has spent more money lobbying than any other company during the first half of 2020, likely has ulterior motives in raising alarm about TikTok, as its Instagram Reels was recently launched as a competing service. TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer accused Reels of being a “copycat service… disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the US.”

Zuckerberg does, however, say that he opposes Trump’s executive order.

“I just think it’s a really bad long-term precedent, and that it needs to be handled with the utmost care and gravity whatever the solution is,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News. “I am really worried…it could very well have long-term consequences in other countries around the world.”

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