The Trump administration made good on its threat to block U.S. users from accessing TikTok and WeChat, announcing that American businesses will be banned from distributing either of the Chinese-owned apps effective Sunday.
Industry experts say the app ban is without precedent in the U.S., while free speech advocates said the bans on TikTok and WeChat abridge American citizens’ First Amendment rights — raising the prospect that the Trump action could face new legal challenges. With the move the White House is attempting to set tech policy that is in unchartered waters.
The Trump administration has maintained that it’s worried the Chinese government will be able to access data on American users of the apps, a situation that it claims threatens national security.
But it’s unclear whether the office of the U.S. president has the authority impose such a sweeping prohibition on apps, said Theresa Payton, CEO of the cybersecurity consultancy Fortalice Solutions and former White House chief information officer. She said the U.S. government’s move to ban TikTok and WeChat is unprecedented.
“I couldn’t find any place where [a presidential] executive order compelled private-sector infrastructure companies to basically stop all access to an app,” she said.
The closest precedent was the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.’s order last year forcing a Chinese firm sell gay dating app Grindr over similar data security concerns. But that didn’t involve a blanket prohibition on U.S. companies facilitating the distribution of the app.
Adding to the confusion, the Commerce Department said Trump may lift the Sept. 20 ban on TikTok if the proposal by parent ByteDance to transfer control of TikTok to Oracle and U.S.-based parties is approved. If TikTok doesn’t get a deal done by Nov. 12 that satisfies the U.S. government, according to the Commerce Department, the app will be fully disabled in the country.
With the Sept. 20 app bans just two days away, Apple’s App Store and Google Play may not be able to comply, Payton said. “When you do things in a hurry like this, you present potentially bigger security issues down the road,” she said. And the issue is bigger than just the app stores: Does it mean search engines and wireless phone providers, for example, have to block TikTok and WeChat as well? Would it apply to virtual private network (VPN) services, which can mask the location of the user?
“This really open up a can of worms,” said Payton, who was the first woman to hold the position of White House CIO under President George W. Bush’s administration.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the bans violate the First Amendment rights of people in the United States “by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.
In addition, the order actually threatens the privacy and security of existing TikTok and WeChat users in the U.S. by blocking their ability to access software updates, which can fix vulnerabilities and make the apps more secure. “In implementing President Trump’s abuse of emergency powers, [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross is undermining our rights and our security,” Shamsi said in a statement. “To truly address privacy concerns raised by social media platforms, Congress should enact comprehensive surveillance reform and strong consumer data privacy legislation.”
Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute executive director Jameel Jaffer also expressed alarm about the TikTok and WeChat bans.
“The Commerce Department’s decision to bar transactions with TikTok and WeChat raises serious First Amendment concerns and should be scrutinized carefully by the courts,” Jaffer said.
The Supreme Court held 50 years ago that the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to access foreign media, Jaffer noted. While the privacy and security concerns with platforms like TikTok and WeChat are real, “we should be wary of setting a precedent that would give this president, and every future one, broad power to interfere with Americans’ access to information and ideas from abroad,” he added.
TikTok is much bigger in the U.S. than WeChat. For the week ended Aug. 15, TikTok had 52.1 million weekly active users in the U.S., according to analytics firm App Annie. By comparison, WeChat had 3.3 million monthly active users in August, per App Annie.
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