In a massive escalation of the conflict between the US and China, the Trump administration on Friday morning said it will ban distribution of the Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat inside the US on Sunday, Sept. 20.
In addition, the administration’s order would ban US Internet hosting and data companies from selling services to TikTok or WeChat. This portion of the order takes effect against Wechat on Sept. 20, and Nov. 12 for TikTok.
Trump contends TikTok and Wechat collect sensitive data about US users that might be shared with the Chinese government. Since he first threatened a ban, TikTok owner Bytedance has been in negotiations to sell a stake, mostly recently with US database titan Oracle. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the TikTok sanction would be lifted if a satisfactory deal is completed.
The crackdown wouldn’t instantly block access to TikTok and WeChat inside the US. Instead, it would degrade the quality of the services, while hindering expansion in the US market.
New users would not be able to download the apps from US-based provider, including Apple and Google’s app stores. It would still be possible to get them from stores outside the US, but most consumers probably do not know how.
Existing users can continue to use the apps, but they will no longer get updates that add new features and fix bugs.
The loss of access to US-based hosting and data delivery services could mean a major degradation in service, especially for TikTok. This hugely popular site features millions of short video clips, and distributing massive amounts of video requires specialized data delivery networks. If TikTok can no longer purchase such services from US firms, it may become a far less entertaining experience.
The first Chinese social media company to achieve global success, TikTok features short video clips produced by users and advertisements from consumer brands. It has about 100 million users in the US, and around 800 million worldwide.
WeChat, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, began life as a messaging app but has since become an all-purpose social media and financial service tool in China. Millions of consumers use it to play games, buy groceries, pay bills, and make travel arrangements.
“The convenience it offers in mainland China is just unparalleled," said Roger Wu, a Taiwanese citizen who spent much of his childhood in China and has used WeChat since 2012. For example, on trips to the mainland, Wu said he never carries a traditional wallet because virtually every merchant accepts payments through WeChat Pay.
However, in keeping with official Chinese government policy, Wechat censors news reports, and monitors and censors user communications. “I feel like most citizens have nothing to fear,” said Wu. But he added that when messaging family members via Wechat, he never discusses politics.
WeChat has between three to four million users in the US, according to a Tencent spokesperson. That number doesn’t include Chinese who use the app while visiting the US. The American version lacks most of the advanced features that make it so popular in China.
US companies that rely on WeChat to advertise products and process financial transactions in China had warned the Trump administration that a total ban could cripple their operations in China.
“US competitor platforms are not allowed in China, so it’s basically the only game in town,” said Doug Barry, spokesman for the US-China Business Council.
But Barry said that the order is aimed only at WeChat activities here; US companies can keep WeChat in their Chinese operations.
The US ban isn’t as extreme as the total shutdown imposed within India after a border skirmish with China earlier this year. Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the National Security Agency, said the US invoked a 1977 law that gives the presidents broad authority to regulate domestic economic activity by declaring a national emergency. President Jimmy Carter used the law in 1979 to impose economic sanctions on Iran that are still in effect today.
But Baker warned that the ban is vulnerable to legal challenge on the grounds it undermines free speech of those who use the apps to publish information.
"You could make a decent argument backed by the First Amendment that the government shouldn’t do that,” Baker said.