US App Stores Banned From Offering WeChat, TikTok

Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing on Aug. 7. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration’s restrictions on Chinese-owned mobile apps WeChat and TikTok get underway this weekend, the Commerce Department announced Friday.

Based on executive orders signed by President Donald Trump on August 6, the popular mobile apps will be prohibited on U.S. app store platforms beginning Sunday, Sept. 20.

The removal from app stores will also involve a specific ban on the sending or processing of funds through WeChat, according to a statement from the Commerce Department. Then, beginning November 12, TikTok will see bans kick in on internet hosting services and content delivery. 

Another change to TikTok due in November is a ban on the service known as peering, in which two ISP connections meet and exchange traffic thereby the necessitation of paying a third party to carry that volume.

“Any other prohibitive transaction relating to WeChat or TikTok may be identified at a future date,” the Commerce Department said Friday. “Should the U.S. Government determine that WeChat’s or TikTok’s illicit behavior is being replicated by another app somehow outside the scope of these executive orders, the President has the authority to consider whether additional orders may be appropriate to address such activities.”

If “national security concerns” surrounding the apps are resolved before the November ban goes into effect, then prohibitions can be lifted.

The executive order signed by the president in August described the Chinese-owned apps as back-door data collectors and launch pads for disinformation campaigns led by the Chinese Communist Party.

Trump specifically cited both apps’ sharing of location data, browsing and search history as a threat to both the private and public sector in America. To date, there have been more than 175 million downloads of TikTok and WeChat in the U.S. alone and over a billion downloads globally.

“What they collect are data on locality, data on what you are streaming toward, what your preferences are, what you are referencing, every bit of behavior that the American side is indulging in becomes available to whoever is watching on the other side. That’s what we’re trying to squelch,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a segment on Fox Business Network on Friday.

But Toss said the “only real change” to TikTok users in the U.S. will see this weekend will be a bar for users to improve, update or maintain the app.

For now, the Trump administration is considering a proposal from ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok and U.S. partner Oracle that could close some of the security gaps that prompted the executive order to start. 

That deal would let ByteDance retain its majority stock in the app and would establish a TikTok headquarters in the U.S.

The proposal is not yet finalized but widespread reports citing anonymous individuals close to negotiations suggest that, as part of the deal, the U.S. government would have control over who sits on TikTok’s board. At least two of those members would be required to have expertise in data security.

If finalized, the deal would also make TikTok an international company up for trading on the U.S. stock exchange.

WeChat is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent Holdings. On Friday, mere hours ahead of the Trump administration’s announcement, Reuters reported that the company changed the name of its WeChat Work collaboration app to WeCom. 

The WeCom trademark was already registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in mid-August, and the maneuver ahead of long anticipated ban gives users a possible alternative to WeChat. Whether WeCom would technically fall under the same restrictions as WeChat is not yet clear.

A test conducted by Reuters on the app Friday morning showed that any user who downloads WeCom can easily link their WeChat account and contacts and even receive funds virtually from users still on the WeChat app. 

A representative from parent company Tencent Holdings did not immediately return request for comment.

While the Trump administration cites spying and other national-security concerns as cause to ban the apps, the CIA released analysis in August concluding that while data siphoning is possible, there is no evidence that has occurred. 

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been dubious of TikTok and WeChat but he has said in recent weeks that the companies concern him far less than Chinese-owned communications giant Huawei. 

Many Republicans have openly pushed back against the proposed merger between TikTok and Oracle. Republican Senator Josh Hawley and other senators like Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, Thom Tillis and Rick Scott have rejected the would-be deal saying that its current terms still wrongly permit China to retain majority control over any U.S.-based version of the app.

Senator Hawley — who recently rejected a bid by Trump to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court — even went so far as to write Monday to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, asking for a total U.S. ban of the app.

“The available evidence compels only one conclusion: ByteDance has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing ultimate control of TikTok,” Hawley wrote. “ByteDance, as TikTok’s parent company, will continue to be subject to Chinese laws that put Americans’ data at risk. That is precisely the problem that the President’s action sought to solve, and it is that same problem that the proposed Oracle partnership leaves fully intact. In short, the proposal violates the President’s executive order.”

The executive order is already getting push back in court. The nonprofit group, WeChat Users Alliance, sued the White House on August 21, alleging the ban is a violation of their constitutional rights.

At the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler intimated Thursday that she will likely block Trump’s executive order on the basis that it violates the First Amendment and is generally, too constitutionally vague. 

“I’m sympathetic to the anxiety that it creates for the people who are affected, and therein lies the vagueness concern which is really wrapped in a little bit that this is the only mode of communication for people,” Beeler said during a remote court hearing on Thursday.

During a follow-up hearing Friday, Beeler said the Commerce Department’s new rule has mooted prior arguments that undefined terms in Trump’s executive order are unconstitutionally vague. She ordered the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint and renewed motion for a preliminary injunction that addresses the Commerce Department’s new regulations by 5 p.m. Friday.

Beeler scheduled an emergency hearing at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in San Francisco, and said she intends to issue a ruling before the WeChat ban takes effect on Sunday.

For its part, TikTok sued the federal government in August, alleging that Trump’s executive fiat trampled its due-process rights.

When Trump issued the order, he did so under authority granted to him in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The legislation gives presidents the opportunity to rein in commercial activities that they believe could harm the nation’s interest. 

More than 19 million Americans use WeChat, and over 100 million Americans use TikTok. Other platforms, like Facebook, still drastically outpace both apps. In the second quarter of 2020, Facebook reported 2.7 billion active monthly users.

%d bloggers like this: