US president Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
US president Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

Washington —  US President Joe Biden is revoking Trump-era bans on the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat on Wednesday, and instead will review software applications from foreign adversaries that could pose a risk to Americans’ sensitive data, senior administration officials said.

Biden, in an executive order, is directing secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo to evaluate the apps and take action against those that pose a security risk. The order replaces former President Donald Trump’s actions, aimed specifically at Chinese companies including TikTok owner ByteDance and WeChat owner Tencent, which tried to ban the use of those apps in the US.

Trump’s measures have been blocked by federal judges, who said the former administration hadn’t shown those apps in particular posed a national security threat justifying a ban.

The new order aims to clarify the criteria that the US views as harming Americans’ sensitive data, the officials said. The data includes personally identifiable information and genetic information that would go to people directly linked to foreign adversaries, including China, according to a White House fact sheet.

A separate national security review into the sale of TikTok to an American company is ongoing and not connected to Wednesday’s action, a senior administration official said.

China will continue to safeguard the interests of its companies, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday at a regular media briefing in Beijing.

“China urges the US side to earnestly respect the principles of market economy and international and economic trade rules; stop overstretching the concept of national security; stop abusing state power to suppress Chinese hi-tech companies; and treat Chinese enterprises in a fair, just and nondiscriminatory manner,” he said.

The US announcement comes as Biden on Wednesday morning left Washington for a week-long trip to Europe where China is expected to be a major focus of discussion among the Group of Seven (G-7) nations.

The new administration’s framework to evaluate apps will be flexible, allowing it to take a tailored approach that addresses the specific risks of each company, one US official said. When pressed during a briefing on Wednesday, administration officials said TikTok and WeChat could be part of the Commerce Department review but declined to say whether the revised order still left them subject to a potential ban.

Commerce will take action under existing authority that allows it to block transactions in the information and communications technology services supply chain. This authority was first issued by Trump and is now being implemented by the Biden administration.

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. 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 US,” said Michael Bien, lead counsel for USWUA and other plaintiffs, in a statement.

“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.”

The Biden order authorises the Commerce Department to begin vetting companies and their services immediately, a senior official said. 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.

TikTok, which has been downloaded more than 100-million times in the US, got caught up in Trump’s crackdown on Chinese technology companies and their influence in the US. The administration argued that Americans’ private data gathered through the app could be handed over to the authoritarian regime in China, something TikTok has said it would never do.

In August 2020, Trump ordered that the app, which lets users share video clips and is especially popular with young people, be sold to a US firm or face a ban in the US

The forced sale got held up over differences about what constitutes US ownership and who would control TikTok’s valuable algorithm. In the meantime, several lawsuits were filed against the ban, including one from US social media influencers, who charged that the ban would violate their constitutional right to free speech. A federal judge ruled in 2020 in the influencers’ favour.

A second federal judge later fully blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban TikTok in the US, finding that Trump overstepped his authority in using emergency economic powers to put the popular app out of business.

In February, the Biden administration asked a federal judge to pause litigation over the ban while the White House reviewed the ruling.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.