Trump administration bans WeChat, TikTok from app stores beginning on Sunday

Administration officials called the bans necessary to protect national security and prevent Beijing from exploiting the apps to collect user data or disseminate propaganda.

Trump Widens China Tech Attack, Banning Tencent's WeChat, TikTok
–Ivan Abreu/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration announced Friday that it is banning China’s TikTok and WeChat services from mobile app stores beginning late Sunday, an unprecedented move that further unravels the United States’s quickly deteriorating relationship with China.

Administration officials called the bans necessary to protect national security and prevent Beijing from exploiting the apps to collect user data or disseminate propaganda. But the measures drew quick criticism from first-amendment defenders such as the American Civil Liberties Union and even from TikTok rival Instagram.

Current and previous administration officials said they could recall no past example of the U.S. government prohibiting information technology on this scale, a practice more common in authoritarian countries such as China, where Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Western apps are banned.

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TikTok has enjoyed explosive growth in the U.S., boasting about 100 million U.S. users on a quarterly basis. WeChat had about 3.3 million monthly active users in the United States as of August, according to analytics provider App Annie.

On Friday, people appeared to be hurrying to download WeChat before the ban sets in. Data provider Sensor Tower said the app climbed to No. 100 Friday afternoon among free iPhone apps in Apple’s U.S. App Store, from No. 1,385 that morning.

The prohibition comes just weeks before a contentious U.S. presidential election in which China has been a frequent target for both President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, from discussions of the coronavirus pandemic to technology and trade.

The move also follows months of U.S. action aimed at countering China on multiple fronts, and represents perhaps the starkest sign yet that the United States is abandoning a decades-long policy of engagement with China.

“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,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “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.”

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Administration officials said the U.S. could reverse the TikTok ban if the company’s Beijing-based owner reaches a deal in ongoing negotiations to shift some control of the app to a Western company, a step the White House has promoted as a way to alleviate its security concerns. But the ban of WeChat appeared to be irreversible.

After midnight as Sunday turns to Monday, anyone attempting to download TikTok or WeChat from the Apple or Google app stores in the United States will not be able to do so, a senior Commerce Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations. Users who already have the apps on a phone will not receive software updates or security patches, the official said.

The administration expects some users will find ways to continue using the apps and it does not intend to prosecute anyone for doing so, the official said. Its aim is to decrease use of the apps over time, the official said.

“We’re not going to haul some person using WeChat to communicate with persons overseas before a federal judge,” the official said.

The White House will take additional action to curb WeChat’s use beginning Sunday and will give TikTok until Nov. 12 before further limitations kick in.

On Sunday, the United States will ban the provision of services that enable WeChat to be used for money transfers or mobile payments, a measure likely to affect banks and other financial institutions.

As of Sunday for WeChat and Nov. 12 for TikTok, the United States will ban any provision of Internet hosting services, or other network services, that allows the apps to function in the United States.

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And it will prohibit any U.S. use of the distinct computer code or functions that underpin both apps, to prevent the Chinese companies from reintroducing the apps under different names, the senior Commerce Department official said.

The restrictions drew criticism from one prominent Silicon Valley figure, with Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri tweeting that a full ban would “be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the Internet more broadly.”

TikTok general manager Vanessa Pappas responded to the tweet by inviting Facebook and Instagram to join a lawsuit TikTok filed last month to fight the impending ban. “This is a moment to put aside our competition and focus on core principles like freedom of expression and due process of law,” she wrote.

TikTok is proposing that it resolve the U.S. concerns by forging a deal with database company Oracle to have the U.S. company secure its data and oversee its technical operations in the country.

That proposal is still under review by the Treasury Department and President Trump. Chinese authorities would also need to sign off on any deal. China’s embassy in the United States didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, TikTok said it disagreed with the app ban.

“In our proposal to the U.S. Administration, we’ve already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and US government oversight of US data security,” the statement from spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said.

Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings, which owns WeChat, said it was reviewing the decision.

“WeChat was designed to serve international users outside of mainland China and has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security,” Tencent said in a statement. The app’s name inside China is Weixin.

Tencent said it has “engaged in extensive discussions with the U.S. government” and “put forward a comprehensive proposal to address its concerns.”

“The restrictions announced today are unfortunate, but given our desire to provide ongoing services to our users in the U.S. – for whom WeChat is an important communication tool – we will continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the U.S. ways to achieve a long-term solution,” Tencent said.

Google and Apple, which operate the most widely used app stores, did not respond to requests for comment.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been lobbying for a deal in which TikTok would outsource data management to Oracle while allowing TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to retain some ownership, according to people familiar with the talks who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

But the plan has faced opposition among some officials and lawmakers who believe it does not fully address national security concerns.

With the Commerce Department order, “the value of TikTok is going to diminish every day,” said Richard Sofield, former director of the Justice Department’s foreign-investment review section and now a partner at Wiley Rein. “It is now a distressed asset.”

The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the Commerce Department action as a violation of app users’ First Amendment rights “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,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

“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,” Shamsi said.

That criticism was echoed by Alex Stamos, the former head of security for Facebook and now a researcher at Stanford University, who urged Apple, Google, and Amazon on Twitter to seek a court order blocking the action.

“The executive branch deciding what is allowed to be on the phones of Americans, with no judicial process or detailed guidelines that companies could follow to be in compliance, is a huge strike against the freedoms of US citizens and the open internet,” he tweeted.

WeChat has been described as the Swiss army knife of apps, allowing users to pay bills, order food, book travel, read news and shop online. It is also a big conduit for Chinese speakers in the United States to communicate with relatives and friends in China.

In China, authorities have used WeChat to monitor political dissidents and other critics, some of whom have been detained by police or sentenced to prison for their posts on the platform.

TikTok’s rise in the United States has been shadowed by signs that Beijing was influencing the videos that could appear on the app. Last year, The Washington Post reported that a search for #hongkong on TikTok yielded few images of the city’s pro-democracy protests, while such images were common on Twitter.

The Post also reported that ByteDance imposed strict rules on what could appear on the app, in keeping with China’s restrictive view of acceptable speech, a policy that sparked backlash from the company’s U.S. employees.

Beijing’s potential involvement spurred the U.S. government to undertake a review led by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) over the merger underpinning TikTok’s U.S. business. TikTok has continually insisted that it does not share U.S. user information with the Chinese government and that moderation for its U.S. app is not conducted in China.

But national security concerns persisted and began to take center stage earlier this year as Trump publicly began threatening to ban the app in the U.S. The threats came as the Trump administration also tightened restrictions on tech exports to Chinese telecom giant Huawei and scores of other Chinese firms.

Paul Scharre, a former Pentagon official and current fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Democrats, too, have come to share some of Trump’s China skepticism, after years of attempted engagement. “The mood has shifted. it’s not just the Trump administration. It’s bipartisan,” Scharre said.

To avoid being banned, TikTok began fielding interest from U.S. suitors to take over its company, including Microsoft, Walmart and Oracle.

Trump put TikTok and WeChat on notice on Aug. 6, when he released a pair of executive orders prohibiting U.S. individuals or companies from carrying out transactions with the apps as of Sept. 20. The orders called both apps a threat to national security, in part by collecting “vast swaths” of user data that Trump said the Chinese Communist Party could tap for nefarious purposes.

The WeChat order said the app gives “the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.”

“WeChat, like TikTok, also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive and may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party,” the order said.

WeChat is one of Tencent’s best-known products, but the tech giant is also the world’s largest online gaming company, a provider of cloud computing services and a big distributor of movies and music.

Tencent has an array of business dealings with Western companies, including through licensing entertainment content, and is one of China’s biggest companies, with a market value of $640 billion on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Earlier this year, Tencent led a consortium that bought 10 percent of Universal Music Group, home of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Luciano Pavarotti.

Robert Chesney, an associate dean at the University of Texas School of Law, said U.S. residents could potentially circumvent the bans by using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to mask their location as they access the apps.

But the strategy, used by some in China to get around the Great Fire Wall, can be clunky, and many people won’t take the time to figure it out, he said.

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