U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S.
The twin executive orders — one for each app — take effect in 45 days. They say they are necessary because the China-owned apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
While the wording of the orders is vague and appears to have been rushed out, some experts said it appears intended to bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, which could effectively remove them from distribution in the U.S.
“This is an unprecedented use of presidential authority,” Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email. At a minimum, he said, the orders appear to “constitute a ban on the ability of U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”
Triolo said the orders may face legal challenges and warned that Beijing is likely to “react harshly, at least rhetorically.” Trump’s orders cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.
The Trump administration and China
Over the past several years, the Trump administration has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.
Election-year politics in the U.S. are fanning the flames, as Trump appears to be using friction with China to drum up voter support.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers share concerns about TikTok running from its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns to the safety of user data and children’s privacy.
But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made U.S. users’ data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.
Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok unless Microsoft or another company acquires it, a threat the new executive order appears to formalize. TikTok did not reply to queries. Tencent and Microsoft declined to comment.
“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.”
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.
“I am the first to yell from the rooftops when there is a glaring privacy issue somewhere. But we just have not found anything we could call a smoking gun in TikTok,” mobile security expert Will Strafach told The Associated Press last month after examining the app. Strafach is CEO of Guardian, which provides a firewall for Apple devices.
The order doesn’t seem to ban Americans from using TikTok, said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She added that such an order would be nearly impossible to enforce in the first place.
“If goal is to get teenagers to stop using TikTok, I’m not sure an executive order will stop them,” she said. “Every teenager knows how to use a VPN (a virtual private network). They will just pretend they are in Canada.”
And it would be difficult to prohibit people from using the apps if they already have them, even if an app-store ban went into effect, said Vanderbilt University law professor Timothy Meyer.
AP reporters Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, Calif., Mae Anderson in New York, Frank Bajak in Boston and Zen Soo in Hong Kong contributed to this article.