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TikTok app. Tik Tok application icon on iPhone screen. Tiktok Social media network.

US to curb use of TikTok and WeChat

Image credit: Savconstantine/Dreamstime

The US will ban the downloads of the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat from this Sunday, with a total ban on the use of the latter.

The restrictions will ban payments through WeChat in the US and prevent other companies from providing services to WeChat or using its code as of Sunday (20 September), with the same limitations set to go into effect for TikTok on 12 November. But US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that access to that app may be possible if certain safeguards are put into place.

“At the president’s direction, 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 US laws and regulations,” he said in a statement.

The department said the actions will “protect users in the US by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”

The US government said its order, previously announced by President Donald Trump in August, will “combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”.

However, the order raises questions about California tech firm Oracle’s recent deal to take over US operations of TikTok, a requirement previously proposed by the Trump administration for the app to continue operating in the US. The software company beat the likes of Microsoft, Twitter, and Walmart to buy TikTok’s American operations. 

Oracle, in confirming it was the winning bidder on Monday (14 September), did not refer to the deal as a sale or acquisition, but rather said it was chosen as TikTok’s “trusted technology provider”. It is also unclear at this point what assets, if any, Oracle would actually acquire.

The Commerce Department will not seek to compel people in the US to remove the apps or stop using them but will not allow updates or new downloads. “We are aiming at a top corporate level. We’re not going to go out after the individual users,” one Commerce official said.

Over time, officials said, the lack of updates will degrade the usability of the app.

“The expectation is that people will find alternative ways to do these actions,” a senior official said. “We expect the market to act and there will be more secure apps that will fill in these gaps that Americans can trust and that the US government won’t have to take similar actions against.”

The department is also barring additional technical transactions with WeChat starting from Sunday that will significantly reduce the usability and functionality of the app in the US. It also will bar data hosting within the US for WeChat, content delivery services, and networks that can increase functionality and internet transit or peering services.

“What immediately is going to happen is users are going to experience a lag or lack of functionality,” a senior Commerce official said of WeChat users. “It may still be usable but it is not going to be as functional as it was.” There may be sporadic outages as well, the official said.

The department added that it will not penalise people who use TikTok or WeChat in the US, adding that some Americans may find “workarounds”. 

Officials stressed that there is nothing that would bar an American from traveling to a foreign country and downloading either app, or potentially using a virtual private network and a desktop client. 

Security experts have previously raised concerns that ByteDance Ltd, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, would maintain access to information on the 100 million TikTok users in the US, creating a security risk. 

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