WASHINGTON: The Trump administration will ban WeChat and video-sharing app TikTok from U.S. app stores starting Sunday night, a move that will block Americans from downloading the Chinese-owned platforms over concerns they pose a national security threat.
The bans, announced on Friday, affect only new downloads and updates and are less sweeping than expected, particularly for TikTok, giving its parent group ByteDance some breathing space to clinch an agreement over the fate of its U.S. operations.
WeChat, an all-in-one messaging, social media and electronic payment app, faces more severe restrictions from Sunday. Existing TikTok users, on the other hand, will see little change until Nov. 12 when a ban on some technical transactions will kick in, which TikTok said would amount to an effective ban.
“We disagree with the decision from the Commerce Department, and are disappointed that it stands to block new app downloads from Sunday and ban use of the TikTok app in the U.S. from Nov. 12,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business Network that “the basic TikTok will stay intact until Nov. 12.”
The ban on new U.S. downloads of the widely popular app could still be rescinded by President Donald Trump before it takes effect if ByteDance seals a deal with Oracle that addresses concerns about the security of its users’ data.
“This is the right move – ratchet up the pressure on Beijing, protect Americans,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Twitter.
The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks amid escalating tensions with Beijing on a range of issues from trade and human rights to the battle for tech supremacy.
The ban on WeChat, used by over 1 billion people worldwide, bars the transfer of funds or processing of payments to or from people in the United States through it. Users could also start to experience slower service from Sunday night.
The Commerce Department order bars Apple Inc’s app store, Alphabet Inc’s Google Play and others from offering the apps on any platform “that can be reached from within the United States,” a senior Commerce official told Reuters.
While the bans are less dramatic than some had originally feared, Commerce officials said additional transactions could be added at a later date.
Oracle shares were down 0.3% after initially dropping 1.6% in pre-market trading.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the Commerce order “violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms.”
It added it also “harms the privacy and security of millions of existing TikTok and WeChat users in the United States by blocking software updates, which can fix vulnerabilities and make the apps more secure.”
The order does not ban U.S. companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside the United States, which will be welcome news to U.S. firms like Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded ‘mini-app’ programs to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China, officials said.
The order will not bar transactions with WeChat-owner Tencent Holdings’ other businesses, including its online gaming operations, and will not prohibit Apple, Google or others from offering TikTok or WeChat apps anywhere outside the United States.
The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on Aug. 6 that gave the Commerce Department 45 days to determine what transactions to block from the apps he deemed pose a national security threat. That deadline expires on Sunday.
Commerce Department officials said they were taking the extraordinary step because of the risks the apps’ data collection poses. China and the companies have denied U.S. user data is collected for spying.
Ross said in a written statement “we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”
Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.