The US government will ban downloads of the Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok and the use of China’s popular messaging and payments app WeChat to “safeguard the national security of the United States”.
TikTok will be banned by 12 November, but commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said early Friday on Fox Business News that access to that app may be possible if certain safeguards are put in 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,” Ross said in a prepared statement.
WeChat, a social media, taxi-hailing, messaging and payment app owned by China’s Tencent, has a billion users worldwide but is relatively small in the US, with 19m users. WeChat users in the US will be unable to use the app for financial transactions from Sunday.
TikTok has 100m users in the US. US tech company Oracle and Walmart are in discussions with the company to form a partnership that would address the Trump administration’s security concerns.
The government previously said that using and downloading the app to communicate won’t be a banned transaction, although messaging on the app “could be directly or indirectly impaired” by the ban, and people who use it for messaging won’t be subject to penalties.
Commerce officials said the ban on new US downloads of TikTok could still be rescinded by Donald Trump before it takes effect late Sunday as TikTok owner ByteDance races to clinch an agreement over the fate of its US operations.
ByteDance has been talks with Oracle and others to create a new company, TikTok Global, that aims to address US concerns about the security of its users’ data. ByteDance still needs Trump’s approval to stave off a US ban.
Commerce officials said they will not bar additional technical transactions for TikTok until 12 November, which gives the company additional time to see if ByteDance can reach a deal for its US operations. “The basic TikTok will stay intact until 12 November,” Ross told Fox Business Network.
The department said the actions will “protect users in the US by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality”.
The commerce department order will “deplatform” the two apps in the United States and bar Apple’s app store, Alphabet Google Play and others from offering the apps on any platform “that can be reached from within the United States”, a senior commerce official told Reuters.
The order will not ban US companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside America, which will be welcome news to US firms like Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded “mini-app” programs to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China, officials said.
The order will not bar transactions with WeChat-owner Tencent Holdings’ other businesses, including its online gaming operations, and will not prohibit Apple, Google or others from offering TikTok or WeChat apps anywhere outside the United States.
In a statement TikTok said it disagreed with the decision. “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 US government oversight of US data security,” the company said.
“Further, an American technology provider would be responsible for maintaining and operating the TikTok network in the US, which would include all services and data serving US consumers. We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the US of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods.”
The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on 6 August that gave the commerce department 45 days to determine what transactions to block from the apps he deemed pose a national security threat. That deadline expires on Sunday.
Commerce department officials said they were taking the extraordinary step because of the risks the apps’ data collection poses. China and the companies have denied US user data is collected for spying.
The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks and has called TikTok and WeChat “significant threats”.
WeChat is popular among Chinese students, Chinese immigrants and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.
WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.
The commerce department will not seek to compel people in the United States 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 apps’ usability.