In an escalation of the ongoing China-US tech war, the US Commerce Department Thursday announced restrictions on new downloads and updates of two popular Chinese-owned mobile apps – WeChat and TikTok – citing a need to safeguard the national security of the United States.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US,” Commerce said in a statement. “Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the US by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”
In a briefing with reporters, a senior Commerce Department official said US consumers will no longer be able to download either program from a US app store from midnight on September 20, and users who already have the apps downloaded will no longer receive updates after that cutoff point. The speed at which content is delivered will also be severely impacted.
The official said the WeChat app will begin to “degrade in functionality” as of midnight September 20, while the same will happen to TikTok starting November 12. This later date aligns with the deadline set by President Trump in an executive order on August 14, which gave ByteDance Ltd, TikTok’s parent company, 90-days to sell TikTok’s US operations or be banned. ByteDance Ltd is in talks with Oracle to spin-off its US subsidiary.
“If they don’t come up with a deal by the end of that 90-day period,” the prohibitive transactions will kick in, the senior Commerce official warned.
The US government’s actions are only targeted at the availability and functionality of both apps in the United States, nowhere else. “Our intent is to stop the increase in national security concerns in the United States,” the senior Commerce official said.
The Commerce Department accused the companies of being an “active participant in China’s civil-military fusion,” and are subject to compulsory cooperation with China’s intelligence services. “This combination results in the use of WeChat and TikTok creating unacceptable risks to our national security,” it added.
As the prohibitions take full effect, the official said the expectation is that the use of these apps will decline over time.
As for whether these restrictions could extend to other Chinese-owned apps used by American consumers, the official said the government is focused on tackling the threats posed by TikTok and WeChat, for now. “When and if there other instances for us to take a look at – we will take the necessary steps in those cases,” he said.
Full details of the Commerce Department’s actions are as follows.
As of September 20, the following transactions are prohibited:
- Any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok apps, constituent code, or app updates through a US online mobile app store;
- Transferring funds or processing payments within the US through WeChat.
As of September 20, for WeChat and as of November 12, 2020, for TikTok, the following transactions will be blocked:
- Internet hosting services enabling the functioning or optimisation of the apps in the US;
- Content delivery network services enabling the functioning or optimisation of the app in the US;
- Any provision directly contracted or arranged Internet transit or peering services enabling the function or optimisation of the mobile application within the US;
- Any utilisation of the mobile application’s constituent code, functions, or services in the functioning of software or services developed and/or accessible within the US.
The US government warned that there could be more restrictions imposed in the future. “Should the US Government determine that WeChat’s or TikTok’s illicit behaviour is being replicated by another app somehow outside the scope of these executive orders, the president has the authority to consider whether additional orders may be appropriate to address such activities,” the Commerce Dept said.
The president has provided until November 12 for the national security concerns posed by TikTok to be resolved. If they are, the prohibitions in this order may be lifted.