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Biden Lowers Security Flag Against Chinese Apps

The president called Wednesday for a government study of whether the last administration had a legitimate basis to outlaw TikTok and other popular social media.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Revoking the Trump-era ban, President Joe Biden administration signed an executive order Wednesday that directs federal officials to investigate his predecessor's claim that China’s TikTok and WeChat pose a threat to American data security.

“I have determined that additional consideration must be given in addressing the national emergency declared,” Biden wrote in a letter Wednesday to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi alongside the order.

Former President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency over foreign-owned telecommunications in May 2019, the first of three actions he would take that painted Huawei, TikTok and others as arms of the Chinese government, exploiting users' location data, browsing and search history for political power.

But the bans did not get far. A federal judge in California blocked the the U.S. Commerce Department from forcing Apple and Google to remove WeChat from their app stores. And in Washington, another judge blocked the ban on TikTok, which has also asked the D.C. Circuit to review the national-security probe against it. 

As Biden signaled in a Wednesday fact sheet about the issue, however, the apps are not yet in the clear. After emphasizing the goal of "protecting human rights online and offline," Biden noted that “certain countries, including the People’s Republic of China, do not share these values and seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests.”

The move sheds light on how Biden plans to pursue relations with China, coming as America's new leader heads to Europe Wednesday for G7 and NATO summits — the first foreign trip of his presidency. It also hints at how he will redefine U.S. relations with China after four years under Trump marked by trade wars and overtly racist criticism of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Biden's replacement order lays out criteria for the Department of Commerce and other agencies to evaluate whether apps created by foreign nations pose a threat to U.S. national security. The report on potential national security threats from foreign-owned apps is due within 120 days.

Using an abbreviation for information and communications technology and services, the White House notes that “ICTS transactions involving software applications may present a heightened risk when the transactions involve applications that are owned, controlled, or managed by persons that support foreign adversary military or intelligence activities, or are involved in malicious cyber activities, or involve applications that collect sensitive personal data."

Biden also tasks Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to study how foreign-owned tech companies are harnessing and using U.S. data. That review in turn will spur "recommendations to protect against harm from the unrestricted sale of, transfer of, or access to United States persons' sensitive data," according to Biden's order.  

“The federal government should evaluate these threats through rigorous, evidence-based analysis and should address any unacceptable or undue risks consistent with overall national security, foreign policy, and economic objectives, including the preservation and demonstration of America's core values and fundamental freedoms,” the order states.

Trump’s now-defunct orders were assailed by First Amendment and tech scholars alike, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation calling it ironic that Trump would ban an outlet for free speech “while purporting to protect America from China’s authoritarian government."

“Millions of users post protected speech to TikTok every day, choosing the app over other options for its features or for its audience,” the advocacy group wrote last summer when Trump’s ban was first being discussed. 

“Courts will generally not uphold a categorical ban on speech,” the EFF added, clarifying the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that to “foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Trump's 2019 stance against Chinese telecoms took on a sharper focus as the pandemic put his reelection chances in jeopardy.

“It’s a big business. Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” Trump said last July.  

Representatives for TikTok did not return a request for comment on Biden's executive order by press time.

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