President Trump has passed executive orders which ban any dealings with the owners of TikTok, WeChat. The first deals with TikTok specifically. Whilst the second addresses its parent company, WeChat.
AP News reports that the ban is sweeping in scope but very unspecific in nature. Reports had hinted that this ban has been coming for some time now. Given Trump’s previous treatment of Huawei, this is probably not something we should be surprised about. However, it could still have wide-ranging impacts on foreign relations as well as the technology sector.
The two executive orders take effect in 45 days. They state that they are necessary as these apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Trump bans Tiktok and WeChat
The wording of both orders appears very vague in exactly what it entails. This means that some experts believe they have been rushed out to some degree.
However, the overarching aim appears to be attempting to remove the apps from popular app stores. Thus, essentially removing their distribution in the U.S.
Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email has pointed out the unprecedented nature of such a move. He says the orders “constitute a ban on the ability of U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”
Triolo argues that the orders are likely to face many legal challenges. He also notes that Beijing is likely to respond harshly if only in rhetoric.
Trump administration continues to fight China
This is the latest attempt from the Trump administration to hold back the growing economic superpower of China. Over recent years, actions taken have included blocking mergers with Chinese companies, stifling Chinese businesses and waging a trade war.
Trump has also blamed Chinese hackers for data breaches of U.S. federal databases. In response, the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.
Given this is an election year in the U.S. it looks as if Trump is trying to leverage anti-Chinese feeling to drum up support.
Concern around the running and administration of TikTok exist across the political spectrum in America. Politicians from all sides worry about its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns.
However, they are yet to find any concrete evidence that U.S. users data has been given to the Chinese government. The threat lies more in the hypothetical idea that the Chinese government could demand cooperation from Chinese companies.
Trump has already threatened to “close down” TikTok unless another company acquires it before this ban. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then announced a further crackdown on Chinese technology.
This includes barring Chinese apps from U.S. app stores and in this calling out TikTok and WeChat by name. None of the companies involved in this has commented on the issue.
Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing believes the U.S government thinks anything from China is suspect. He said companies such as TikTok are “being targeted not because of what they’ve done, but who they are.”
Thus far there is no evidence to suggest TikTok itself is a security risk which makes the ban itself somewhat questionable.
No ban on American’s using Tiktok
As far as we can discern these orders do not ban American’s from using Tiktok. Kirsten Martin who is a professor of technology at the University of Notre Dame pointed out that a ban of that sort would be nearly impossible to enforce in any case.
She noted that almost every teenager knows how to use a VPN so there would be little point in trying to stop American’s using TikTok. It would also be tricky to ban the app itself especially as many people already have it.
TikTok insists that the company does not store U.S. data in China. Instead, it claims that it caches the data in the U.S. and Singapore. It also says it would not share that information with the Chinese government.
Reports suggest that TikTok has a massive user base in the U.S. so this ban is significant. Estimates indicate that as many as 50million active users exist in the U.S.
WeChat and its sister app is also hugely popular and between the claim around 1 billion users. It is generally used for messaging and financial transfers. Many people of Chinese descent use the app to stay in contact with mainland China
WeChat is heavily censored within China and users are expected to adhere to strict guidelines. The app also monitors files and images shared abroad to aid its censorship in China.
This is clearly a pretty bold and important step in escalating the technology Cold War between China and the U.S. Trump is often the aggressor in these situations so how this ban on TikTok plays out across the globe could be fascinating.