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TikTok, WeChat order revoked

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-10 11:00
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A reflection of the US flag is seen on the signs of the WeChat and TikTok apps in this illustration picture taken September 19, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday reversed former president Donald Trump's executive orders that sought to ban downloads of the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat in the US.

Biden replaced them with a review process to be done by the Commerce Department to determine whether apps controlled by a foreign adversary present risks to US national security and the security of Americans' sensitive personal data, the White House said. After the review, the government can "take action, as appropriate", the administration said. The order doesn't target any companies specifically.

The Biden order authorizes the Commerce Department to begin vetting companies and their services immediately, a senior official said, according to Bloomberg. Two separate reports by the commerce secretary on recommendations for actions and additional executive and legislative measures must be completed in 120 days and 180 days, respectively.

In attempting to ban the video-sharing platform TikTok and messaging and payments app WeChat last year, Trump said apps owned by businesses in China "threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States". Trump ordered last August that the TikTok app, which lets users share video clips and is especially popular with young people, be sold to an American firm or face a ban in the US, but that sale effort failed.

Last year, federal judges said the administration hadn't shown those apps in particular posed a national security threat justifying a ban and blocked Trump's orders. TikTok had sued, saying that the administration hadn't proven that the app poses a national security threat because of its parent company's roots in China.

Legal challenges followed, and the app is still available. In February, the Biden administration asked a federal judge to pause litigation over the ban while the White House reviewed the ruling.

On a call with reporters Wednesday, Biden administration officials said Trump's executive orders weren't drafted "in the soundest fashion", according to The New York Times. The officials didn't say whether the Biden administration would attempt to pressure Beijing-based ByteDance, which owns TikTok, to move user data to a company based in the US, the Times said.

"Removing the ban on Tiktok and WeChat simply means that pragmatism outweighs ideology," said George Koo, a retired international business adviser in Silicon Valley and a political critic, told China Daily.

"Both apps have gained such popular acceptance in the US that banning their use would raise the hackles of the American users. Discretion is better than being stupid," said Koo, who frequently writes on US-China relations.

TikTok has nearly 700 million users. WeChat has more than a billion users worldwide and is owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings Ltd.

TikTok had no comment, but the US WeChat Users Alliance, which successfully sued the US government over Trump's restrictions last year, said it welcomed the move to revoke the ban on WeChat.

Trump's "wrong-headed ban on WeChat" would have "led to the unprecedented shutdown of a major platform for communications relied on by millions of people in the United States", said Michael Bien, lead counsel for USWUA and other plaintiffs, in a statement, according to Bloomberg. "The courts did the right thing by preventing the ban from going into effect, but the whole episode creating enormous disruption and uncertainty never should have happened in the first place."

Administration officials said a review of TikTok by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in US companies, was still continuing and separate from Biden's order.

The president's action came a day after the Senate passed the US Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill that aims to counter so-called challenges from China in semiconductor production and the development of artificial intelligence and other technology.

A cybersecurity and privacy analysis of TikTok published in March by the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab found no evidence of malicious behavior and said TikTok's data-collection practices were no worse than other major social platforms such as Facebook, according to The Associated Press.

"Our research shows that there is no overt data transmission to the Chinese government by TikTok," the analysis said.

Lia Zhu in San Francisco contributed to this story.

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