Biden Pauses Appeals on Chinese App Bans

The Justice Department has put two lawsuits on ice so that it can see if there is any merit to theories that Beijing’s agenda is a driving force behind the emerging social media forces WeChat and TikTok.

Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing on Aug. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

(CN) — Signaling a possible détente of the last administration’s war on Chinese technology, the U.S. government told two courts of appeal that it has begun investigating justification for the last administration’s bans against WeChat and TikTok.

Former President Trump announced the bans over the summer, claiming that the Chinese-owned apps posed privacy and security risks to Americans.

The move prompted immediate lawsuits, followed by injunctions and then appeals by Trump to reinstate the ban.

Now that the White House has new hands on the steering wheel, however, Justice Department lawyers are in less of a rush.

In the Ninth Circuit, which heard oral arguments only last month over the messaging app WeChat, Justice Department attorney Sean Janda asked the court Thursday to put the case on an indefinite hold.

“As the Biden administration has taken office, the Department of Commerce has begun a review of certain recently issued agency actions, including the secretary’s prohibitions regarding the WeChat mobile application at issue in this appeal,” the unopposed motion states. “In relation to those prohibitions, the Department plans to conduct an evaluation of the underlying record justifying those prohibitions.”

Justice Department lawyer Casen Ross brought a similar motion with the Third Circuit, forestalling arguments that would have gotten underway Thursday over the video-sharing service TikTok.

“We are thrilled that the Biden administration is taking a fresh look at President Trump’s WeChat ban,” David Gossett, an attorney for Davis Wright Tremaine, which is fighting the Ninth Circuit case, said in an email Thursday.

“We expect that the new administration will realize that the ban inappropriately blocks a primary means of communication within the Chinese-American community and to friends and relatives in China, does not advance U.S. national security, and should be revoked,” Gossett added.

As part of his plan to ban TikTok, Trump said that the app needed to be bought by an American company. Oracle and Walmart had teamed up in an attempt to take over U.S. operations of TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, but an agreement was never reached. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, Biden’s redirection has left merger talks at a standstill.

Weighing in from the University of Mary Washington, political science professor Elizabeth Larus noted that the litigation is part of a broader dance with Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. relations.

“Walking back TikTok is a signal to Xi that the Biden administration seeks to reset relations with Beijing by revisiting some of Trump’s actions against China. Biden is giving himself room to determine if the dispute over Tik Tok is truly warranted, or if the threat has been exaggerated,” Larus said in an email. “Being willing to rethink the proposed ban sends a signal to Xi that Biden will be pragmatic in his approach to Beijing.”

For the first time since taking office, Biden spoke with President Xi on Wednesday after previously referring to TikTok as a “matter of genuine concern.”

“I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people,” Biden tweeted that evening, following a statement where he cited “fundamental concerns” about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair economic practices.” 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration was evaluating potential threats from TikTok, and they will “address them in a decisive and effective fashion.”

In both courts of appeal, the Biden administration said it “remains committed to a robust defense of national security as well as ensuring the viability of our economy and preserving individual rights and data privacy.” 

The government declined to comment on the matter, and attorneys in the TikTok did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

While the Ninth Circuit has not yet acted on the motion of abeyance, the Third Circuit agreed to pause the TikTok case with status updates from both parties every 60 days.

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