It finally happened. After a month of threatening to do so, President Donald Trump issued executive orders that will ban the popular Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat in the US on national security concerns. There are still some unknowns around the language and implementation of the decrees, and there’s a chance they get dialed back later during trade negotiations between the US and China. Whatever happens, there will likely be lasting negative ramifications — and not just for Chinese firms, but for American technology companies as well.
Trump’s orders have a 45-day lag. They prohibit any person
subject to US jurisdiction from dealing with TikTok’s Beijing-based owner ByteDance Ltd and Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd in transactions related to its WeChat app.
The wording of the first order effectively puts Microsoft Corp and ByteDance on the clock to finish their deal negotiations for TikTok’s US operations by the already stipulated September 15 target date. But the WeChat ban order may be a bigger threat as there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way out before the deadline.
The threat to the Chinese apps is clear. But the details cited inside the orders may cause future headaches for the biggest US tech firms, too. For example, Trump noted how TikTok captures location data and user-activity information that could “potentially” be used for blackmail and corporate spying. This pertains to all US social media apps, too. Further, the president cited how TikTok videos spread “debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus” as one of his reasons to ban the app. Similar conspiracy videos also sprout up often on Facebook and Google’s YouTube platforms.
The problem is, the use of such justification opens the door for other countries around the world to use similar rationale to ban US apps within their borders. After all this time and nearly a year of investigation, where is the compelling evidence against these apps? It isn’t in these orders.
Big Tech’s leaders are worried about these implications. According to a BuzzFeed News report, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said a TikTok ban would be “a really bad long-term precedent,” adding “it could very well have long-term consequences in other countries around the world.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates told Bloomberg News that businesses need to know the rule set for commerce when they make investments in the US and wondered about the timing of the TikTok ban threats. “If this is such a clear thing why wasn’t it clear three months ago, six months ago?,” he said.
In addition to governmental risk, there may be a consumer backlash in foreign countries. By going after ByteDance and Tencent, two of the most respected Chinese internet success stories, Trump’s actions may spark a nationalistic backlash against buying American products and services in the Asian country.