Biden revokes WeChat and TikTok ban, but orders security review

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered the Commerce Department to use “rigorous, evidence-based analysis” to screen foreign apps that may pose security risks. His predecessor Donald Trump sought to ban China’s WeChat and TikToko.   © Reuters

YIFAN YU, Nikkei staff writer | North America

PALO ALTO, U.S. — U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday withdrew a series of executive orders that sought to ban new downloads of WeChat and TikTok and ordered a broad security review of apps connected to “foreign adversaries,” including China.

“Certain countries, including the People’s Republic of China … seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests,” the administration said in a statement.

Biden’s new executive order revokes the WeChat and TikTok orders issued in August, along with another in January that targeted eight other Chinese communications and financial technology software applications.

Trump’s initial ban attempted to block downloads and use of Tencent’s messaging app WeChat and ByteDance-owned video app TikTok in the U.S. Both bans were challenged in court and never took effect after federal judges issued injunctions.

Biden’s executive order directs the Commerce Department to use “rigorous, evidence-based analysis” to “evaluate on a continuing basis” any foreign software that might pose unacceptable risks.

The Commerce Department is required to recommend how to protect U.S. data acquired or accessible by companies controlled by foreign adversaries within 120 day under the order. It must also recommend additional executive and legislative actions to address national security concerns arising from certain apps within 180 days.

Biden’s executive order came a day after the Senate passed a $250 billion comprehensive bill to support the U.S.’s competition for technological leadership with China. The legislation needs to clear the House before it can be signed into law by Biden.

Last week, Biden signed an executive order that bans U.S. investment in Chinese companies with alleged ties to the defense and surveillance technology sectors.

Given the ongoing bipartisan effort to counter China and its growing tech expertise, Chinese companies still face strong political headwinds in the U.S.

Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri closely aligned with Trump, attacked Biden’s move on Twitter. “This is a major mistake — shows alarming complacency regarding #China’s access to Americans’ personal information, as well as #China’s growing corporate influence,” he tweeted.

“The U.S. president has the authority to ban Chinese apps in the future if he chooses to do so,” said Clay Zhu, one of the founders of the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, which led the lawsuit against Trump’s Chinese messaging app ban, and a Silicon Valley-based partner at global law firm De Heng.

“But the bans need to be based on facts and laws, otherwise they will be overturned by the court, just like Trump’s,” he added.

Trump accused TikTok and WeChat in the now-revoked executive orders of being espionage tools for Beijing to spy on the U.S. as they capture huge amounts of American user data.

Both TikTok, which has over 100 million users in the U.S., and WeChat have denied they abuse any U.S. user data or posed national security concerns.

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