National Security

TikTok employees ready legal challenge in response to Trump order

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A TikTok employee is mounting a legal challenge on behalf of the company’s U.S.-based workers in response to President Trump’s order banning American transactions with ByteDance, the Chinese firm that owns the wildly popular short-form video app.

The march toward a lawsuit comes amid growing uncertainty regarding the company’s fate in the U.S. following recent executive actions that targeted social media apps with links to China over national security concerns.

Patrick Ryan, a technical program manager at TikTok, told The Hill that his lawsuit will focus on the constitutional right to due process, arguing it’s not the president’s decision “to permit or to not permit entire businesses on a whim.”

He said about 1,500 TikTok and ByteDance employees are at risk of not receiving paychecks when Trump’s orders take effect next month.

Ryan started a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for legal representation. He said the complaint will seek an injunction preventing the government from enforcing the order against U.S. workers. A GoFundMe to support the cost of litigation has raised about half of its $30,000 goal since launching on Wednesday.

Blackstone Law Group and Mike Godwin, a prominent internet rights lawyer, were retained to represent TikTok’s U.S. employees. They are expecting to file a lawsuit in federal court later this week that argues Trump’s action represents executive overreach and places workers’ constitutional rights, including the right to be paid, in jeopardy.

The attorneys said they are considering filing in the Southern District of New York, Northern California or Washington, D.C.

The complaint will also be filed as part of an effort to gain a better understanding of how the Commerce Department plans to apply the ban on transactions.

“We don’t necessarily know whether it is the intention of the government to prevent them from being paid,” said Alexander Urbelis, a partner with Blackstone Law Group, adding the Trump administration has yet to provide clarity on the issue.

But he noted that without an injunction, more than a thousand workers could see their income disappear during a pandemic.

“Livelihoods are being put at stake by the executive order,” Urbelis said.

Ryan, a former lawyer who previously worked for Google, argued that the order’s stipulations on transactions would not only put TikTok out of business in the U.S., it would also prohibit the company from paying its employees. While Trump’s order did not specify what transactions would be barred, Ryan said there isn’t enough time for a “wait and see approach.”

“The president said he intended to put TikTok out of business, and the executive order does that, with no due process,” he said.

Trump in early August signed a pair of orders that would effectively ban TikTok and the messaging app WeChat from operating in the U.S. after Sept. 20. Trump invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and said his move was in response to TikTok’s collection of user data and concerns it could be shared with China’s government.

The order declared that any transaction with ByteDance would be prohibited in the U.S. in 45 days, essentially giving the company a short period to sell TikTok to a U.S. owner. Microsoft has emerged as the favorite to purchase the company’s U.S. operations, though experts are skeptical that a deal could be secured in such a short timeframe.

Trump last week signed another executive order demanding ByteDance divest its American assets and any U.S. data from TikTok within 90 days.

TikTok, in a statement following Trump’s order, said it would “pursue all remedies available to us.” However, a company spokesperson told The Hill that executives at the firm have “no involvement with and are not coordinating on the initiative of employees that has been undertaken in their personal capacity.”

“We respect the rights of employees to engage in concerted activity to seek due process of law,” the spokesperson added.

TikTok declined to comment on what legal options, if any, it is pursuing. The company is reportedly planning to sue the administration and argue that the national security grounds for the ban are unfounded.

As TikTok’s popularity ballooned in recent years — the company has more than 100 million users in the U.S. — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle began raising concerns about the app’s security practices and whether laws in China could allow for the seizure of data from U.S. users.

TikTok has rejected those suggestions, saying American user data is stored in the U.S. with strict controls.

Trump claimed authority to bar TikTok transactions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 law granting the president broad power to regulate economic transactions after declaring a national emergency. Critics of the order, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that Trump has failed to offer evidence about the threat TikTok poses and that selectively banning platforms violates the First Amendment, in addition to due process rights.

Carl Tobias, a Richmond University law professor, said the government would likely make national security a core part of its defense in the event of a lawsuit, noting that the approach has proven successful for various administrations, including Trump’s.

“National security is one of the areas where courts are pretty deferential to the president, if a government could show there is a serious national security risk,” Tobias said. “Courts are very reluctant to second guess the president in that context.”

But Urbelis said the wide latitude offered to presidents on national security doesn’t mean Trump “can do anything, especially when it impacts U.S. families and their ability to put food on the table for their families.”

Ryan stressed his case would narrowly focus on constitutional issues, adding that he and his fellow employees would not seek damages or mount any additional legal challenges. In recent days, he has posted videos to TikTok explaining why he is pushing forward with the lawsuit.

“There are two executive orders, and we’d like to stop them,” he said in a video shared Sunday. “We’re looking at our own rights as employees here in the United States and we’d like your help.” 

Tags Blackstone Law Group ByteDance China Donald Trump Electronic Frontier Foundation first amendment Google International Emergency Economic Powers Act Microsoft National security Social media tiktok
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