The Trump administration will ban WeChat and video-sharing app TikTok from US app stores starting Sunday night, a move that will block Americans from downloading the Chinese-owned platforms over concerns they pose a national security threat.
The bans, announced on Friday, affect only new downloads and updates and are less sweeping than expected, particularly for TikTok, giving its parent group ByteDance some breathing space to clinch an agreement over the fate of its US operations.
China said on Saturday it had launched a counter-mechanism enabling it to restrict foreign entities, a much-anticipated move seen as retaliation to US penalties against Chinese companies such as telecom giant Huawei.
An announcement by the Ministry of Commerce did not mention any specific foreign entities, but broadly spelled out the factors that could trigger punitive measures, which may include fines, restrictions on import-export business or investment in China, and the entry of personnel or equipment into the country.
It covers “foreign enterprises, other organisations and individuals”, it said.
Beijing said it would consider sanctions on entities whose activities “harm China’s national sovereignty, security, and development interests” or violate “internationally accepted economic and trade rules”.
This language closely tracks wording that Beijing has used to repeatedly denounce US actions against Chinese companies.
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 November 12 when a ban on some technical transactions will kick in, which TikTok said would amount to an effective ban.
“We disagree with the decision from the Commerce Department, and are disappointed that it stands to block new app downloads from Sunday and ban use of the TikTok app in the US from Nov. 12,” the company said in a statement. “We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the US of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business Network that “the basic TikTok will stay intact until Nov. 12”.
The ban on new US downloads of the widely popular app could still be rescinded by President Donald Trump before it takes effect if ByteDance seals a deal with Oracle that addresses concerns about the security of its users’ data.
“This is the right move – ratchet up the pressure on Beijing, protect Americans,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Twitter.
The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks amid escalating tensions with Beijing on a range of issues from trade and human rights to the battle for tech supremacy.
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 slower service from Sunday night.
The Commerce Department order bars Apple Inc’s app store, Alphabet Inc’s Google Play and others from offering the apps on any platform “that can be reached from within the United States”, a senior Commerce official told Reuters.
While the bans are less dramatic than some had originally feared, Commerce officials said additional transactions could be added at a later date.
Oracle shares were down 0.3 percent after initially dropping 1.6 percent in pre-market trading.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the Commerce 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”.
It added it 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”.
The order does not ban US companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside the United States, which will be welcome news to US firms like Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded ‘mini-app’ programmes to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China, officials said.
The order will not bar transactions with WeChat-owner Tencent Holdings’ other businesses, including its online gaming operations, and will not prohibit Apple, Google or others from offering TikTok or WeChat apps anywhere outside the United States.
The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on August 6 that gave the Commerce Department 45 days to determine what transactions to block from the apps he deemed pose a national security threat. That deadline expires on Sunday.
Commerce Department officials said they were taking the extraordinary step because of the risks the apps’ data collection poses. China and the companies have denied US user data is collected for spying.
Ross said in a written statement “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 US laws and regulations”.
Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
TikTok has 100 million users in the United States and is especially popular among younger Americans.
WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, ex-pats and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.
The Commerce Department will not seek to compel people in the United States to remove the apps or stop using them. “We are aiming at a top corporate level. We’re not going to go out after the individual users,” one Commerce official said.
Over time, officials said, the lack of updates will degrade the app’s usability.
“The expectation is that people will find alternative ways to do these actions,” a senior official said. “We expect the market to act and there will be more secure apps that will fill in these gaps that Americans can trust and that the United States government won’t have to take similar actions against.”
Commerce is also barring additional technical transactions with WeChat starting Sunday that will significantly reduce the usability and functionality of the app in the United States.
The order bars data hosting within the United States for WeChat, content delivery services and networks that can increase functionality and internet transit or peering services.
“What immediately is going to happen is users are going to experience a lag or lack of functionality,” a senior Commerce official said of WeChat users. “It may still be usable but it is not going to be as functional as it was.”
Commerce will bar the same set of technical transactions for TikTok, but that will not take effect until November 12.
Commerce will not penalise people who use TikTok or WeChat in the United States.
The order does not bar data storage within the United States for WeChat or TikTok.
Some Americans may find workarounds. There is nothing that would bar an American from travelling to a foreign country and downloading either app, or potentially using a virtual private network and a desktop client, officials conceded.
Source: FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP