The Trump administration has moved to ban TikTok and WeChat from use within the U.S. in the next 45 days. Using his emergency economic powers, President Donald Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on the two companies, citing national security concerns.
Under the new orders, TikTok and WeChat will not be allowed to conduct business with anyone in the United States. This means that both apps may no longer receive advertising from American companies, and may be pulled out from Apple and Google’s app stores in the country—effectively disabling software updates and rendering both apps nonfunctional over time. (READ: TikTok’s looming ban is the latest in rocky relationship with US government)
According to legal experts, the Trump administration can’t legally enforce an outright ban on TikTok, but it can kneecap the business in other ways.
“[The Trump administration] can interfere so heavily with TikTok’s business that an American TikTok clone will replace it,” explained Kyle Langvardt, a law professor at the University of Detroit, in an interview with Business Insider.
In a statement, TikTok said that it was “shocked” by the executive order. The company claimed that the Trump administration “paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
TikTok also said that the move would set a dangerous precedent, in particular, against free expression and open markets, as well as undermine the trust of global businesses.
“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly —if not by the Administration, then by the U.S. courts,” the company added.
Despite the administration’s accusations, TikTok has maintained that it’s open about what data it collects, and the company claims it’s similar to practices being done by American companies like Google, Facebook and Apple.
“While TikTok is being singled out in this executive order, their data collection and sharing practices are fairly standard in the industry,” University of Notre Dame technology professor Kirsten Martin told NPR. “In fact, many fitness apps were banned from use in the military for tracking location data, but we did not ban them from all U.S. citizens.”
Still, the White House insists that TikTok and WeChat are security threats because they can provide the Chinese Communist Party a channel to harvest personal and proprietary information. According to the White House, this not only enables Beijing to carry out disinformation campaigns to benefit China’s interest, but it also allows the country to track Federal employees and contractors, which it can use to conduct espionage.
“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” the executive order reads.
The actual scope of the ban is still unclear, but experts say that the restrictions will hurt WeChat more than TikTok, should these push through. For one, Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok, a move that can potentially rescue its U.S. operations.
WeChat—which the administration accused of spying on Chinese citizens “who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives”—is widely used around the world, in particular, by Chinese citizens both living in China and abroad. From its humble beginnings in 2011, WeChat is now the leading social media network of China’s one-billion strong population.
To further complicate things, the executive order also bans transactions between U.S. companies and Tencent, WeChat’s parent company. This effectively prevents American companies from using the ubiquitous app for marketing, advertising and after-sales service.
In addition, Tencent is an investor in major video games and franchises, including Snap and Activision Blizzard, and owns a majority stake in Riot Games, developers of League of Legends and Valorant, and Supercell, the makers of Clash of Clans. The White House has since clarified that the ban won’t cover video game companies with ties to Tencent.
With the Trump administration on the warpath against Chinese companies, it’s anybody’s guess how China will respond. But one thing is sure: Things are about to get a lot worse.