Former President Donald Trump’s TikTok and WeChat bans were officially dropped on Wednesday, but scrutiny of the China-owned apps will continue under the Biden administration.
To replace the Trump-era actions, President Biden signed new orders calling for the Commerce Department to launch national security reviews of apps with links to foreign adversaries, including China.
The move represents a reset in relations between Washington and TikTok, the hit video-sharing app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, and WeChat, the popular messaging app run by Shenzhen-based Tencent. But the apps are “not out of the woods yet,” said James Lewis, who heads technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has been in discussions with White House officials in both administrations about the future of the apps.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a ban reinstated but on more rational grounds,” Lewis said. “If I was TikTok, I would be thinking about what do I do to ward off another ban.”
Biden’s executive order mandates accountability measures that TikTok does not currently have, including “reliable third-party auditing” of the app for possible security risk.
Because of the ties to China, U.S. officials remain concerned about how the apps treat Americans’ data, Lewis said.
“You can be as pure as the driven snow, but any time Xi Jinping wants to lean on you, he can do it, and you have no appeal,” he said.
Under Biden’s new order, the Commerce Department will launch an “evidence-based” evaluation of apps with Chinese connections that may pose a security risk and “take action, as appropriate” based on those reviews.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Biden’s move but warned against any future punitive measures against the apps that could violate the rights of users.
“President Biden is right to revoke these Trump administration executive orders, which blatantly violated the First Amendment rights of TikTok and WeChat users in the United States,” said Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “The Commerce Department’s review of these and other apps must not take us down the same misguided path, by serving as a smokescreen for future bans or other unlawful actions.”
The measured tone from the Biden administration is a stark contrast with Trump, who tried to outright ban the apps last year. His aggressive push against TikTok and WeChat confused and panicked people in the U.S. who use the apps. While millions turned to TikTok for distraction and fun during the pandemic, many American businesses rely on WeChat for sales, marketing and other transactions with customers in China. Trump’s actions also led to lawsuits, leading to federal courts’ pausing enforcement of his directives.
To appease Trump, TikTok also explored potential sales to American firms, including Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart. No agreement was ever hammered out, however.
The owners of TikTok, the most popular app in the world, were reluctant to sell off the first China-based app that has reached global success. State media in China called Trump’s tactics against TikTok “nothing short of broad daylight robbery.”
Biden’s move to drop Trump’s executive actions had been expected since at least February when the administration put the Trump-era orders on ice.
Months before Trump tried to shut down TikTok, the company had been in talks with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency panel that reviews companies that have overseas ownership.
ByteDance, TikTok’s corporate owner, is still involved in those negotiations over a deal to ensure Americans’ data is not in jeopardy of being accessed by Chinese authorities.
TikTok has long maintained there is a firewall between it and its corporate owner in China. TikTok executives say no data on Americans users is housed on Chinese servers; that data can only be obtained with the permission of TikTok’s U.S.-based security team.
Under TikTok’s terms of service, user data can be shared with ByteDance. Yet TikTok says Chinese government officials have never asked it for information on U.S. users. If Beijing did ever make such a request, TikTok’s lawyers say it would be denied.
The amount of data TikTok mines from its mobile phone users is on par with what other apps collect, including ones owned by Facebook and Google.