Future Tense

Here’s What the Trump Administration’s TikTok and WeChat Bans Actually Do

The TikTok logo outside a TikTok office in California
WeChat users are about to be cut off. TikTok is a little more complicated. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The TikTok ban is finally happening—even though, just this week, it looked like the Chinese-owned app may have found a way to get around demands from President Donald Trump.

On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department announced that American users will no longer be able to download TikTok—as well as WeChat, another China-based social media app—starting on the night of Sept. 20 because of national security concerns. Mobile app stores in the U.S. won’t be allowed to distribute the two apps, which also means that users who currently have the apps won’t be able to update them. “Each [app] collects vast swaths of data from users, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories. Each is an active participant in China’s civil-military fusion and is subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP,” reads a statement from the department. “This combination results in the use of WeChat and TikTok creating unacceptable risks to our national security.”

There has never been any evidence of TikTok transferring user data to the Chinese government, although officials in China theoretically could obtain access to it. WeChat, meanwhile, has a history of enabling Chinese state surveillance and propaganda within the country, although the version of the app available in the United States is more limited than the one users in China have.

In addition to the ban on downloading, the Commerce Department will also prohibit WeChat from processing U.S. payments and transferring funds. Providers of internet hosting, internet transit, content delivery networks, or peering services will not be able to do business with WeChat either, though U.S. companies (like Walmart and Starbucks) can still harness the app for operations outside of the country. The same will happen to TikTok on Nov. 12 unless Trump rescinds the ban or the administration approves a deal for a U.S.-based company to take over the app from its Chinese owner ByteDance. In effect, WeChat users will experience outages and degradation in services, while people who already have TikTok downloaded will be able to use the app for roughly the next month and a half. However, U.S. users won’t have access to TikTok updates and maintenance. The Commerce Department has declined to specify how it will enforce these bans, though it did clarify that users will not be penalized.

TikTok said in a statement that it disagrees with the Commerce Department’s decision: “In our proposal to the U.S. Administration, we’ve already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and U.S. government oversight of U.S. data security.” Apple and Google, which distribute WeChat and TikTok through their mobile app stores, have yet to comment.

Last weekend, Oracle emerged as the winner in a bidding war to take stewardship over TikTok, beating out Microsoft. Under the terms of the proposed deal, Oracle reportedly won’t likely be purchasing TikTok’s U.S. operations or source code, but will rather be the app’s “trusted tech partner,” owning some percentage of a newly created TikTok entity and serving as its host. The Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and the White House are currently reviewing the deal to determine whether it addresses the data-security concerns associated with the app. Chinese authorities also need to sign off. If they all do so by Nov. 12, TikTok will be able to avoid WeChat’s fate.

The Commerce Department’s move on Friday to ban downloads may be a way for the administration to pressure ByteDance into making a deal. There has been some speculation that the deadline was intentionally pushed until after the upcoming election so that Trump won’t face backlash at the polls from TikTok users—known to be a politically feisty bunch—though senior Commerce Department officials denied that was the case during a press call on Friday. Instead, they claimed that Nov. 12 was simply the end of the 90-day window that Trump gave to the Treasury Department in an August executive order to figure out a deal that would allow TikTok to continue operations in the U.S.

Anyway, if you were planning on finally downloading TikTok, aren’t sold on the cybersecurity concern, and still think Trump will kill any deal, you should probably download it now. If you were curious about WeChat—well, sorry.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.