On Friday, the Trump administration announced that it will, in fact, ban TikTok and WeChat effective Sunday night. Since then TikTok revealed that it had finalized a deal with Oracle and Walmart to become a U.S. company and the Trump administration has signed off.
In the midst of it all, it’s worth considering what the bans really mean and whether we should be worried. It’s easy to make the case that because both companies have ties to China, there are obvious national security concerns. That’s true, though, for very different reasons for each company.
On the other hand, the idea that the government is ordering Apple and Google to remove apps from their app stores, even though those apps serve hundreds of millions of users, should be alarming to everyone. That’s a slippery slope that doesn’t usually end well. It doesn’t take much for the government to find a “national security” problems when it decides to look hard enough.
Even more concerning is that the only thing these two apps really have in common is the fact their parent companies are based in China. In TikTok’s case, the company is based in the U.S., but is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. It operates mostly independently from its Chinese siblings, though it does share source code.
TikTok has repeatedly said that it would protect user data, and would not make that data available to the Chinese government. And, as of Saturday, the company appears to have worked out an arrangement that now apparently includes a partnership between Oracle and Walmart to become a U.S. company.
TikTok’s audience is mostly young people who use the service to share videos. Its secret sauce is an algorithm that serves up an endless stream of relevant content. That algorithm is so good at identifying your interests that if you want to get to know someone who uses TikTok, just ask them to open the app.
WeChat, on the other hand, is a completely different type of app. It often serves as the primary connection between Chinese-Americans and their family and friends in mainland China. It’s also quite different from most apps that Americans use, and as such, it’s hard to grasp the extent to which it plays a role in the lives of its users. It serves as a payment tool, messaging app, news feed, and photo sharing. Even describing it that way doesn’t really do justice to how deeply ingrained it has become to its users’ lives.
As a result, there are legitimate national security concerns associated with the amount of influence the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has over both the company and its users.
The order by the Commerce Department requires Apple and Google to remove WeChat from their platforms, though users who have already downloaded it will continue to be able to use it–for now. Since the company will no longer be able to provide users with updates, eventually the service will stop functioning.
If you use that platform, you would be wise to update now in order to be sure you’re running the latest version. That’s especially true if you’ve updated to iOS 14 this week. WeChat will also no longer be able to facilitate financial transactions for people within the U.S.
That’s a problem, but the bigger issue is that there’s no reason to think it will stop with WeChat and TikTok. Keep in mind the government has already imposed a ban on American companies doing business with Chinese telecom Huawei.
Bloomberg is reporting that the U.S. government is investigating Epic Games, in which Tencent is an investor. If that’s the case, the company’s fight with Apple over App Store policies might be the least of its worries.
It also wouldn’t surprise me if the Trump administration decided to extend its scrutiny to include companies that develop software in China, like Zoom. While Zoom is based in San Jose, California, much of its software development is done in China. What happens if the administration decides to block that app here unless Zoom pulls all of its business out of China?
Again, the argument isn’t that China isn’t a concern. There is plenty of evidence that it is. What’s not as clear is whether these particular apps pose the national security risks that the government is claiming, or if banning them is simply a political convenience in the midst of a trade war that has been increasing over the past three years.
If that’s the case, we should all be worried–and not just because it’s likely China will respond by targeting some U.S. companies, like Apple, which still manufactures the bulk of its products there. The bigger problem is the U.S. might do the same.