Trump Restricts WeChat and TikTok, Escalating Tensions with China
U.S. President Donald Trump issued executive orders late Thursday night that bar transactions by U.S. persons or that involve property subject to U.S. jurisdiction with the parent companies of WeChat and TikTok.
The orders go into effect in 45 days, and the Trump administration cited national security concerns for issuing them—including that the data collected by the applications poses a risk to the United States.
“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,” according to one executive order. “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.”
The executive order also said that TikTok could be used to conduct disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as to spread “debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.”
In a statement released shortly after the executive order, TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, said it was “shocked” and that it never shares user data with the Chinese government or censors content at its request.
“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,” TikTok said. “And it sets a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets. We will pursue all remedies available to us in order 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 U.S. courts.”
The administration issued similar reasons for banning transactions with Tencent, the parent company of WeChat—which is used by more than 1 billion people around the world. That order, however, expanded on the threat that such data collection could allow the Chinese Communist Party to keep “tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.”
The ban on transactions with WeChat’s parent company could have more of a global impact than the ban on ByteDance.
“Overseas Chinese and members of the Chinese diaspora use WeChat to talk to their relatives and friends in the mainland, where many other social messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are blocked by government Internet controls,” according to Fortune. “WeChat is widely used by American firms in China to make deals and communicate with employees and customers.”
In a briefing on Friday, Wang Wenbin—spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs—said the executive orders were a “nakedly hegemonic act” and that “on the pretext of national security, the U.S. frequently abuses national power and unreasonably suppresses relevant enterprises,” according to The New York Times.
“But the national security cases against TikTok and WeChat are far from clear,” the Times analyzed. “Even within the national security community—and the nation’s intelligence agencies—there are doubts that the United States can successfully cut its networks and technologies off from China. There is also a realization that a good number of communications will run over Chinese-controlled computers, networks, and switches no matter what the U.S. government does.”
In a blog published on its website earlier this week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued against an outright ban of TikTok in the United States—citing the possibility of First Amendment violations—but did express concerns about TikTok’s security practices.
There are some genuine security concerns about TikTok, but banning the app will not solve them. https://t.co/tKXgDtUJl5— EFF (@EFF) August 4, 2020
“TikTok is not notably less secure than equivalent social media apps, though it has had its share of vulnerabilities, privacy violations, and dubious practices,” according to EFF. “But it is different from apps such as Facebook or Twitter in that its data is stored in China and it has employees in China. Your data is vulnerable to pressure by the government of the country where it is physically located or where employees are located. Governments have a disturbing history of arresting employees to add pressure to their data demands.”