The administration of United States President Donald Trump has banned two Chinese apps – TikTok and WeChat – from app stores.
Trump is accusing them of collecting data from users that can be retrieved by Beijing. TikTok is used to download videos and is hugely popular in the US while WeChat is widely used as a chat app, payment portal and news source.
Does the president’s decision rob Americans of their freedoms?
And will lead to an east-west divide of the internet?
Presenter: Halla Mohieddeen
Mitch Stoltz – a San Franciso-based attorney focusing on copyright and free speech
Manya Koetse – a China social trend and online media watcher based in Amsterdam
Dipayan Ghosh – leads the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard University
What did Donald Trump say?
In both executive orders, Mr Trump says that the spread in the US of mobile apps developed and owned by Chinese firms “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States”.
The US government says TikTok and WeChat “capture vast swaths of information from its users”.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”
The executive order also claims both apps gather data on Chinese nationals visiting the US, allowing Beijing “to keep tabs” on them.
Mr Trump’s executive order also says TikTok’s data collection could allow China to track US government employees and gather personal information for blackmail, or to carry out corporate espionage.
He notes that reports indicate TikTok censors content deemed politically sensitive, such as protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority.
The orders have been issued under legal authority from the National Emergencies Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
What does TikTok say?
In its most robust response so far to the US government, TikTok says the executive order that has been issued is based on “unnamed reports with no citations”.
“We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request,” it said.
“We even expressed our willingness to pursue a full sale of the US business to an American company.”
Mr Trump said this week he would support the sale to Microsoft as long as the US government received a “substantial portion” of the sale price.
TikTok said the new executive order “risks undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law”, adding it sets “a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets”.
“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the administration, then by the US courts,” it said.
The app is reported to have around 800 million active monthly users, with its biggest markets having grown in the US and India.
India has, however, already blocked TikTok, as well as other Chinese apps.
Australia, which has already banned Huawei and ZTE, is also considering banning TikTok.
WeChat is very popular among those users who have connections to China, where major social networking platforms – such as WhatsApp and Facebook – are blocked.
It is also viewed as being a key instrument in China’s internal surveillance apparatus – requiring local users who have been accused of spreading malicious rumours to register a facial scan and voice print.
A seminar held earlier this year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank discussed how groups within the app would be used to recommend holiday destinations, restaurants and the like on a day-to-day basis, but then switch to spreading political messages in line with Beijing’s thinking at critical times.