Trump Bans Dealings With Chinese Owners Of TikTok, WeChat

Trump bans dealings with Chinese owners of TikTok, WeChat President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he finishes speaking during an event at the Whirlpool Corporation facility in Clyde, Ohio, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh

By TALI ARBEL AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but vague ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of popular social media apps TikTok and WeChat on security grounds, a move China's government criticized as “political manipulation."

The twin executive orders Thursday — one for each app — add to growing U.S.-Chinese conflict over technology and security. They take effect in 45 days and could bar the apps from the Apple and Google app stores, effectively removing them from U.S. distribution. U.S. experts expressed skepticism about its legal authority.

China's foreign ministry said it opposed the move but gave no indication whether Beijing might retaliate.

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“This is a pretty broad and pretty quick expansion of the technology Cold War between the U.S. and China,” said Steven Weber, faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Long Term Cybersecurity.

Earlier, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok in the United States unless Microsoft Corp. or another company acquires it.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-headquartered ByteDance Ltd., is popular for its short, catchy videos. The company says it has 100 million users in the United States and hundreds of millions worldwide. WeChat, known in Chinese as Weixin, is a critical communications app with more than 1 billion users. Around the world, many people of Chinese descent use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family and to conduct business in mainland China.

The Trump administration has expressed concern Chinese companies could provide American users' personal information to Chinese authorities, though it has given no evidence TikTok did that. TikTok has said repeatedly that it doesn’t store American user data in China and never has given it to Beijing or censored content at the government’s request.

Leading mobile security experts say TikTok is no more intrusive in its harvesting of user data and monitoring of user activity than U.S. apps owned by Facebook and Google. And the order doesn’t seem to ban Americans from using TikTok, which would be nearly impossible to enforce, said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

But U.S. officials point to the Communist Party’s ability to compel cooperation from Chinese companies. U.S. regulators cited similar security concerns last year when the Chinese owner of dating app Grindr was ordered to sell the dating app.

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“The U.S. thinking is that anything that is Chinese is suspect,” said Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “They’re being targeted not because of what they’ve done, but who they are.”

In a statement, TikTok expressed shock at the order and complained it violates U.S. law. TikTok said the Trump administration has “paid no attention to facts," tried improperly to insert itself into business negotiations. The company said it would “pursue all remedies" and suggested it would sue to ensure the company and its users are “are treated fairly.”

Tencent said it's "reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding.” Microsoft declined to comment.

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