US president Donald Trump has signed two Executive Orders banning Chinese video-sharing app TikTok and its compatriot, the somewhat lesser-known WeChat, in 45 days’ time, saying that “additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency” relating to the ICT and services supply chain.
The orders will take effect on 20 September 2020 and forbid “any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States” with either TikTok parent ByteDance or WeChat parent Tencent.
The order against TikTok states: “The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States. At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.
“TikTok…has reportedly been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally. TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information – potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.
“TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
“This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.
“These risks are real. The Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, and the United States Armed Forces have already banned the use of TikTok on Federal Government phones.
“The Government of India recently banned the use of TikTok and other Chinese mobile applications throughout the country; in a statement, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asserted that they were ‘stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India’.
“American companies and organisations have begun banning TikTok on their devices. The United States must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security.”
The order against WeChat makes similar statements, in addition to accusing the app’s backers of allowing it to be used to spread Chinese state propaganda to users outside China.
The implications of both bans are wide-ranging. As stated by Trump, TikTok has been downloaded almost a billion times as its user base, primarily made up of younger people, exploded at the height of the global Covid-19 lockdown. These tech-savvy users will likely push back against the ban, and it is likely many will try to circumvent it, not always via legal or, more importantly, secure means.
What the ban will mean for negotiations towards a deal between Microsoft and ByteDance, which if made would see Redmond take control of TikTok’s operations in the US, also remains to be seen.
The ban on WeChat, meanwhile, will also carry extensive repercussions. The app effectively serves as a Chinese equivalent of Facebook’s WhatsApp, but also operates as a hybrid version of a number of other apps, with features including online dating, photo sharing, mobile payments, and even ride-sharing.
Little known in the West, it enjoys near-ubiquity in China thanks to this litany of additional features that make daily life in China considerably harder to navigate without it. This has given rise to fears that banning it could cause problems for the Chinese diaspora around the world, and anybody who has cause to travel to or do business in China.
A spokesperson for TikTok said: “TikTok is a community full of creativity and passion, a home that brings joy to families and meaningful careers to creators. And we are building this platform for the long term. TikTok will be here for many years to come.
“We are shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process. For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed.
“What we encountered instead was that the administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.
“We made clear our intentions to work with the appropriate officials to devise a solution to benefit our users, creators, partners, employees and the broader community in the United States. There has been, and continues to be, no due process or adherence to the law.
“The text of the decision makes it plain that there has been a reliance on unnamed ‘reports’ with no citations, fears that the app ‘may be’ used for misinformation campaigns with no substantiation of such fears, and concerns about the collection of data that is industry standard for thousands of mobile apps around the world.
“We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request. In fact, we make our moderation guidelines and algorithm source code available in our Transparency Center, which is a level of accountability no peer company has committed to. We even expressed our willingness to pursue a full sale of the US business to an American company.
“This Executive Order risks undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law, which has served as a magnet for investment and spurred decades of American economic growth. And it sets a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets.
“We will pursue all remedies available to us to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the administration, then by the US courts.
“We want the 100 million Americans who love our platform because it is your home for expression, entertainment, and connection to know: TikTok has never, and will never, waver in our commitment to you. We prioritise your safety, security, and the trust of our community – always.
“As TikTok users, creators, partners and family, you have the right to express your opinions to your elected representatives, including the White House. You have the right to be heard.”