“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 US app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”
Triolo said the orders could face legal challenges and warned Beijing was likely to “react harshly, at least rhetorically.” Trump’s orders cited the legal authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.
The action is the Trump administration’s latest attempt to hamper China, a growing economic superpower. In recent years, it has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies, and stifled activities from Chinese companies like Huawei, a maker of telephones and telecommunications equipment. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been accused of data breaches at US federal databases and the Equifax credit agency, and the Chinese government is strictly limiting what US tech companies can do in China. .
The politics of the election year in the United States are stoking the flames, as Trump appears to be using friction with China to garner voter support.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers share concerns about TikTok ranging from its vulnerability to censorship and disinformation campaigns to the security of user data and children’s privacy. But the administration did not provide any specific evidence that TikTok made U.S. user data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat to the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.
Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a September 15 deadline to “shut down” TikTok unless Microsoft or another company acquires it, a threat the new executive order appears to formalize. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the US crackdown on Chinese technology to include banning Chinese apps from US app stores, citing suspected security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat through their last name.
TikTok did not respond to queries. Tencent and Microsoft declined to comment.
“The American thought is that anything Chinese is suspect,” said Andy Mok, senior researcher at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “They are not targeted because of what they have done, but because of their identity. ”
Leading mobile security experts say TikTok is no more intrusive in its collection of user data and monitoring user activity than US apps owned by Facebook and Google.
“I’m the first to shout from the rooftops when there’s a glaring privacy issue somewhere. But we just couldn’t find anything we could call a smoking gun at TikTok, ”mobile security expert Will Strafach told The Associated Press last month after reviewing the app. Strafach is CEO of Guardian, which provides a firewall for Apple devices.
The order does not appear to prohibit Americans from using TikTok, said Kirsten Martin, professor of technological ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She added that such an order would be virtually impossible to enforce in the first place.
“If the goal is to get teens 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 to be in Canada. ”
And it would be difficult to ban people from using the apps if they already have them, even if an app store ban goes into effect, said Timothy Meyer, professor of law at Vanderbilt University.
TikTok, known for its short and catchy videos, is very popular among young people in the United States and elsewhere. It is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which operates a separate version for the Chinese market. TikTok insists it does not store information for American users in China, but caches them in the United States and Singapore, and says it would not share it with the Chinese government.
TikTok says it has 100 million US users and hundreds of millions around the world. According to research firm App Annie, TikTok saw 50 million weekly active users in the United States during the week of July 19, the latest figure available. That’s 75% more than the first week of the year.
WeChat and its sister app Weixin in China are hugely popular apps that integrate messaging, money transfers, and a range of other services, and claim more than a billion users. All over the world, many people of Chinese descent use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family and to do business in Mainland China.
In China, WeChat is censored and is expected to adhere to content restrictions set by authorities. Toronto-based internet monitoring group Citizen Lab said WeChat was monitoring files and images shared abroad to facilitate its censorship in China.
The order against Tencent could have ramifications for users beyond WeChat, which is crucial for personal communications and organizations doing business with China. Tencent also owns parts or all of the big game companies like Epic Games, publisher of the hit video game Fortnite, and Riot Games, which is behind League of Legends.
“This is a fairly large and fairly rapid expansion of Cold War technology between the United States and China,” said Steven Weber, faculty director at the Berkeley Center for Long Term Cybersecurity. Weber added that “there is a plausible national security rationale” for the orders.
As president, Trump has often taken the unusual step of provoking confrontations, often of a personal nature, with specific companies, both US and foreign.
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.
This story has been updated to clarify that Toronto-based Citizen Lab is a watchdog group unrelated to the Chinese government.