Trump Administration Bans TikTok and WeChat Apps

Following the U.S. State Department’s announcement last month of a “Clean Network” initiative aimed at protecting against threats posed by Chinese tech firms, President Trump on August 6 unveiled an executive order banning U.S. transactions with Chinese tech firms ByteDance and Tencent—the owners of the popular video-sharing app and social media platform , respectively. On Friday the U.S. Department of Commerce announced an official ban on TikTok and WeChat in U.S. app stores beginning Sunday, and imminent prohibitions on U.S. companies processing transactions or hosting web traffic for the . A press release quotes Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross:

In response to President Trump’s Executive Orders signed August 6, 2020, the Department of Commerce (Commerce) today announced prohibitions on transactions relating to mobile applications (apps) WeChat and TikTok to safeguard the national security of the United States. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S. Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.

“Today’s actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party,” said U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. “At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”

While the threats posed by WeChat and TikTok are not identical, they are similar. Each collects vast swaths of data from users, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories. Each is an active participant in China’s civil-military fusion and is subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP.  This combination results in the use of WeChat and TikTok creating unacceptable risks to our national security. […] [Source]

Reuters’ David Shepardson, Echo Wang, and Alexandra Alper provide more details on the imminent bans:

The bans, announced on Friday, affect only new downloads and updates and are less sweeping than expected, particularly for TikTok, giving its parent group some breathing space to clinch an agreement over the fate of its U.S. operations.

WeChat, an all-in-one messaging, social media and electronic payment app, faces more severe restrictions from Sunday. Existing TikTok users, on the other hand, will see little change until Nov. 12 when a ban on some technical transactions will kick in, which TikTok said would amount to an effective ban.

[…] The ban on WeChat, used by over 1 billion people worldwide, bars the transfer of funds or processing of payments to or from people in the United States through it. Users could also start to experience significantly slower service or sporadic outages from Sunday night. [Source]

Dina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, quickly labelled the move an attack on the rights of Americans:

“This order violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms. The order also harms the privacy and security of millions of existing TikTok and WeChat users in the United States by blocking software updates, which can fix vulnerabilities and make the apps more secure. In implementing President Trump’s abuse of emergency powers, Secretary Ross is undermining our rights and our security. To truly address privacy concerns raised by social media platforms, Congress should enact comprehensive surveillance reform and strong consumer data privacy legislation.” [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Katy Stech Ferek and John D. McKinnon report further on pushback from a wide range of stakeholders—including free speech advocates, U.S. companies with business interests in China, and the Chinese firms themselves:

Commerce said it would allow U.S. companies to continue providing web-hosting services for TikTok through Nov. 12, amid talks with its Chinese owner ByteDance Ltd. and Oracle Corp. to create a new U.S.-based owner of the video-sharing app that has become a fixture on millions of American teenagers’ smart phones.

[…] “The Supreme Court held 50 years ago that the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to access foreign media,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement. “This protection is no less important today.”

On Friday, a federal judge in California declined to grant a request from a WeChat users group for a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the executive order.

In a court filing on that case, UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky said the prohibition on WeChat “is the equivalent of a complete ban of a newspaper, a TV channel, or a website used by the tens of millions of U.S. citizens who regularly use the WeChat platform to communicate ideas and to conduct business every day in the United States.” [Source]

At The New York Times, Ana Swanson, David McCabe, and Jack Nicas describe both the legitimate security concerns over the Chinese-owned apps and the bans potential impact on them, and highlight the increasingly necessary role the platforms play for personal and business interactions in a globalized world.

TikTok, which does not directly operate in China, has become a wildly popular platform for sharing viral videos in the United States. WeChat is at the center of digital life in China, functioning as a chat app, a payment platform and a news source for people in China and the Chinese diaspora around the world. It is also a conduit for Chinese propaganda and surveillance.

[…] Cybersecurity experts have debated the extent to which the bans would address national security threats. Many other Chinese-owned companies gather data from mobile users in the United States, as do Facebook, Google and other non-Chinese services.

James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration’s moves seemed aimed at pushing ByteDance to give the U.S. more control over TikTok.

[…] The ability of the U.S. to enforce the ban remains an open question. As Chinese authorities know, internet bans are easier declared than enforced. While the U.S. rules block the app from stores within the country, workarounds will likely materialize. Users could switch their settings to access to an app store outside the U.S., or switch to other apps, like a messaging service called QQ. [Source]

At VICE, Jason Koebler notes that, while the Trump administration cites security to justify the bans, they will likely make U.S.-based users uniquely vulnerable to attack:

For a policy that is nominally based on protecting national security and the data of American users, this is one of the most counterproductive moves imaginable, considering that the most basic of all security advice is to “keep your apps updated,” because developers often issue updates that fix security holes. By banning TikTok from the app store, it will be impossible for users to update their app, meaning any existing vulnerabilities discovered by ByteDance between now and November will continue to persist for Americans and Americans only. [Source]

While the English-language media spotlight has focused mostly on TikTok—a widely popular app in the U.S.—it is the ban on WeChat will disproportionately affect users in the Chinese diaspora. At Lausan, an independent Hong Kong media collective focused on Hong Kong’s growing post-NSL political diaspora, Rui Zhong explains:

Since WeChat’s growth into an all-in-one app that acts simultaneously as a wallet, video conferencing tool, messaging platform, news aggregator, and something akin to a mobile operating system, the super-app has been Chinese nationals’ lifeline overseas. A ban on it would discourage longer-term business and student travelers from China and cause potential Chinese nationals to avoid studying or doing business in the US altogether.

The ban will not, however, discourage Chinese nationals from using an app that’s already integrated itself into China’s daily living habits; from settling payments to calling taxis to doing healthcare check-ins. When studying abroad, the app’s out-of-the-box features allow students to easily call home, wire money and other functional features. Chinese diaspora and Chinese Americans who live abroad will struggle to communicate with family and loved ones back in China, already preparing to revert to phones and email. Even multinational companies have had formal communications channels on WeChat. But among these groups, those hit the hardest will be low-wage Chinese diaspora, who may lack the time and resources that their white-collar counterparts have in order to finagle VPNs and other workarounds.

Regardless of creed or political stripe, the controls of law enforcement by Beijing’s government loom large for the Chinese diaspora. If there is any silver lining to these potential bans, it’s that data privacy and a reliance on tech conglomerates might become a bigger concern within WeChat-using communities.

While the costs of a ban of WeChat and potential future restrictions on Tencent’s broader American-based portfolio may further alienate US capital from China’s market, these entities have financial cushions and highly paid strategists that will soften the blow. But ordinary Chinese diaspora, from wage workers in America’s restaurants to construction sites, do not possess such luxuries. Like previous instances where US politicians announced that China ostensibly will pay for infractions, the brunt of the new ban’s consequences will again fall on ordinary people caught between the two nations. [Source]

On Twitter, China-focused journalists, legal experts, and rights advocates overwhelmingly expressed frustration with the move:

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