Wendy Lee, Don Lee, Suhauna Hussain
Los Angeles Times
The U.S. Commerce Department on Friday took harsh action against two popular apps owned by China-based companies, announcing an imminent ban on the messaging service WeChat and limiting updates to the video app TikTok in the U.S. in advance of a ban or change of ownership.
“Today’s actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
The ban on WeChat is set to take effect Sunday. Under the Commerce Department’s guidance, American companies including Apple and Google, are being instructed to remove WeChat from their mobile app stores. The department also said WeChat’s ability to transfer funds in the U.S. would be curtailed.
Starting on Sunday night, TikTok users in the U.S. will not be able to access updates to the TikTok app, which could cause a gradual degradation of the app’s services, Ross said in an interview with Fox Business. TikTok also said the order would block new app downloads on Sunday.
The Trump administration is targeting popular apps like WeChat and TikTok owned by China-based tech companies, raising national security concerns about whether these apps could pass on information about U.S. users to the Chinese government. The administration has given TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, a deadline of Nov. 12 to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations or face a full ban in the U.S.
In a briefing call with reporters early Friday, senior Commerce Department officials, speaking on background, declined to say how the new restrictions would be enforced, and they acknowledged the practical limitations of a ban and the potential backlash the administration could face in targeting an app that many Chinese Americans use to communicate with friends and relatives in China and elsewhere.
“We expect that individual users will probably find ways to use these applications. Stopping every person from using these, WeChat or TikTok in the United States, is not our intent,” a senior official said, noting that the aim of the prohibitions would be to reduce the use of these social media in the United States over time and thus the availability of data from Americans and threat to national security.
“We’re not going to haul some person using WeChat to communicate with folks overseas before a federal judge,” a senior official said.
ByteDance is working on gaining approval from the U.S. and Chinese governments of a deal whereby Oracle would be named its trusted technology partner, maintaining and operating TikTok in the U.S. TikTok said in a statement that its proposal would also include “third-party audits, verification of code security and U.S. government oversight of U.S. data security.”
Commerce Department officials on the briefing call declined to comment on the state of those talks. The Commerce and Treasury departments are working together to review the process. “We took pains to not do anything in this order that might disrupt the ongoing negotiations with the parties and the president’s deliberations whether or not to accept the arrangement that’s being developed,” a Commerce official said.
The administration’s decision to hold off on imposing most of the restrictions for TikTok until Nov. 12 means those actions would come after the presidential election. Commerce officials denied that the delay was politically motivated, saying the deadline was timed to a 90-day period from Trump’s executive order on the matter issued in August.
The deal is under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a group of Senate-confirmed officials who meet to examine the national security implications of certain investments by foreign entities. CFIUS will make a recommendation to Trump.
Typically, a deal in which an American company would not have 100% ownership of TikTok would give CFIUS pause, given its security concerns about the personal information of U.S. citizens, said Nicole Lamb-Hale, who represented the Commerce Department on CFIUS and is now a managing director at Kroll, a New York-based risk consulting firm.
Six U.S. senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), cast doubt on a version of the proposal in a letter this week to Trump.
“As reported, the proposed partnership agreement between Oracle and TikTok leaves significant unresolved national security issues,” the letter said.
TikTok has also sued the Trump administration over the executive order signed on Aug. 6 and said on Friday that it disagrees with the Commerce Deptartment’s decision.
Trump signed the executive order under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which gives him the authority to regulate international commerce to address unusual or extraordinary threats.
“We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the U.S. of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods,” TikTok said in a statement.
Last week, a judge ruled that TikTok employees can continue to receive payments and benefits while the executive order is in effect.
A coalition of WeChat users filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California on Aug. 21 seeking to block Trump’s executive order on WeChat from taking effect. The complaint alleged the order violates constitutional rights to free speech.
In a hearing on that lawsuit Thursday, U.S. judge Laurel Beeler said she would be willing to grant a preliminary injunction, given the hazy language of the order and its potential effects on users who rely on WeChat.
“I will say I am sympathetic to the anxiety that it creates for the people who are affected, and therein lies the vagueness concern,” she said at the hearing. “This is the only mode of communication for many. I know that. We all know that.” Beeler did not issue a final decision on the ban, however.
In a statement, WeChat parent company Tencent said it was reviewing Friday’s announcement.
“The restrictions announced today are unfortunate, but given our desire to provide ongoing services to our users in the U.S. — for whom WeChat is an important communication tool — we will continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the U.S. ways to achieve a long-term solution,” the company said.
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