The U.S. Commerce Department has issued an order Friday that bans people in the United States from downloading Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat and video-sharing app TikTok starting on September 20, Reuters reported.
TikTok has 100 million users in the United States and is especially popular among younger Americans.
WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, ex-pats 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.
Angelique Medina, director at ThousandEyes, a network monitoring company recently acquired by Cisco, said: “Removing WeChat from the app store is the easy part in this scenario, but this ban is also preventing providers from any provisioning of hosting and content delivery services that enable the app.
However, WeChat doesn’t even use those services in the U.S. WeChat is owned by Tencent, which appears to use its own data centers to host the app. Many of those are outside of the U.S., including in Hong Kong and even mainland China.
“What this means from a ban standpoint is not clear, but it would likely fall to any American-based transit or exchange provider doing business with Tencent to determine if its peering setup within or beyond U.S. borders puts it at risk of violation,” Angelique Medina said in a statement.
Tencent offers other services beyond WeChat that are not covered under the ban. Filtering out which traffic is deemed illegal or not, especially given the last-minute time frame would be challenging for its providers, not to say unprecedented.
The ban on new U.S. downloads of TikTok could be still rescinded by President Donald Trump before it takes effect late Sunday as TikTok owner ByteDance races to clinch an agreement over the fate of its U.S. operations.
ByteDance has been in talks with Oracle and others to create TikTok Global that aims to address U.S. concerns about the security of its users’ data. ByteDance still needs Trump’s approval to stave off a U.S. ban.
The Commerce Department order will “deplatform” the two apps in the United States and bar Apple’s app store, Alphabet’s 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 U.S. companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside the United States, which will be welcome news to U.S. firms like Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded ‘mini-app’ programs to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China.
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.
The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on Aug. 6 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 U.S. user data is collected for spying.
In a statement to Reuters, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said “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 U.S. laws and regulations.”
Commerce is also barring additional technical transactions with WeChat starting Sunday that will significantly reduce the usability and functionality of the app in the United States.
The order bars data hosting within the United States for WeChat, content delivery services and networks that can increase functionality and internet transit or peering services.
Commerce will bar the same set of technical transactions for TikTok, but that will not take effect until Nov. 12 to give the company additional time to see if ByteDance can reach a deal for its U.S. operations.
Commerce will not penalize people who use TikTok or WeChat in the United States. The order does not bar data storage within the United States for WeChat or TikTok.
Meanwhile, Tencent has changed the name of its WeChat Work office collaboration app to WeCom, setting it up as a potential alternative to its messaging app WeChat ahead of a U.S. ban.