Not content to leave well enough alone, President Trump has signed an executive order that imposes a ban on TikTok beginning September 20. The order says President Trump "finds that additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency." To be clear, he isn't talking about the pandemic, but rather "the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People's Republic of China."
The president signed a second executive order imposing a ban on WeChat, a popular chat application with over a billion users, owned by Tencent. The actual scope of the bans, and precisely what apps and services might be affected, isn't entirely clear. The order simply says that after 45 days, the Secretary of Commerce will determine which transactions are subject to the ban.
In addition to being vague, a ban could be broadened depending on how the government decides to implement it. Tencent, the owner of WeChat, also has stakes in gaming companies, including those that make World of Warcraft and Fortnite.
There is absolutely an argument to be made that any app owned by a Chinese company could potentially pose a security risk. There's no question about that. Then again, I don't use TikTok or WeChat, so maybe I'm just not that worried.
Of course, it might be worth mentioning that the average American doesn't need Chinese apps to compromise their data. We have Facebook--which seems to be really good at abusing our personal information in all sorts of ways.
For an ordinary citizen, the idea that the Chinese Communist Party might be storing copies of TikTok videos is weird, but really quite inconsequential. The real concern is that the apps could be transmitting other, more sensitive user data, like locations. TikTok has said that doesn't happen, and that it would not comply with requests from the Chinese government to hand over data on U.S. citizens.
Certainly, there's a different level of concern for federal employees whom the Chinese government might be interested in spying on. But, if the issue is security, it does seem like it would be much easier to simply prohibit federal employees from installing certain apps on their official devices. I mean, should the Undersecretary of State of East Asian Affairs really have TikTok on a government iPhone anyway?
By the way, the federal government doesn't have any problem with trying to force U.S. companies to hand over data on its citizens. It just, apparently, doesn't want anyone else to try.
Whatever you might think about China or WeChat or TikTok, there actually is a much bigger issue. Two really.
The first is that these orders would essentially prohibit Apple and Google from allowing users to download these apps from the App Store and Google Play Store, respectively. Whether TikTok or WeChat poses an actual national security risk, I think Americans should be very leery of the idea that the president can effectively censor the apps and services you're allowed to use.
If that's the case, what's to say the government will stop with a few apps owned by Chinese companies?
The second, and equally troublesome issue, is that China's response could pose an extraordinary risk to U.S. companies. For example, if China decides to retaliate, it won't be against, say, Twitter. The social media service is already banned in China. The same is true for Facebook, though China could impose a ban in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Facebook isn't currently blocked.
Or, what if China decides to forbid Chinese companies from doing business with Walmart? That may not be the most likely scenario, simply because the companies represent a huge amount of business for Chinese companies, but nothing is out of the realm of possibility right now.
There's also the possibility the country could directly retaliate against Microsoft. That would seem like a logical response, except Microsoft doesn't really have much of a consumer-focused business in China.
The more likely target is Apple. Imagine if China said that it was prohibiting companies and individuals from doing business with Apple. Not only would that hurt sales of the iPhone and Mac there--where it represents 17 percent of the company's revenue--but it would also affect almost every product the company makes. In that case, you won't have to worry about the president banning apps on your iPhone, since you won't even be able to get one shipped to you anyway.