TikTok will be removed from US app stores from midnight on Sunday as Washington implements executive orders from President Donald Trump that also target WeChat, a Chinese social media app.
The US commerce department, which announced the move on Friday, stopped short of forcing Apple and Google to remove the Chinese versions of TikTok and WeChat from their app stores in China.
Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said the administration had taken “significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data” by implementing the orders.
The imminent removals come as Oracle and ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, continue talks with the administration to resolve its concerns over the video app. Any deal will also need approval from China.
Oracle and ByteDance have submitted a proposal that would spin out TikTok’s global business into a new US company that would have an all-American board and a security committee headed by someone with government security clearances. The new company would initially be majority owned by ByteDance, but would seek to list publicly in the US.
Mr Trump this week raised concerns about continuing Chinese ownership of the app, while some lawmakers, including Marco Rubio, an influential Republican senator, said the deal would let ByteDance keep control of the algorithm that picks which videos to show to each user.
Asked about the negotiations surrounding TikTok, Mr Trump on Friday said there were some “great options” but stressed that it was essential that any deal did not undermine US national security when it came to China.
“I am not going to do anything to jeopardise security,” Mr Trump said.
He called TikTok an “amazing company” and said a deal could happen soon without providing detail: “It could go very, very fast.”
The removal of TikTok and WeChat from US app stores implements two executive orders issued last month by Mr Trump, which said US companies would be barred from dealing with them from September 20. The president later issued a third order that gave ByteDance until November 12 to divest its interests in TikTok in the US.
TikTok on Friday said it opposed the move and would “challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the US of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods”.
Tencent, the Chinese company that owns WeChat, said the decision was “unfortunate”. But it said it would “continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the US ways to achieve a long-term solution.”
Speaking on Fox Business, Mr Ross said WeChat would effectively be shut down immediately in the US. The move banned US companies that provide critical services to the app — which also allows users to transfer money and make payments — from dealing with WeChat.
Mr Ross and commerce department officials said TikTok users in the US would suffer a gradual degradation of service — due to a ban on updates or patches — but could use the app until November 12.
TikTok would be shut down on that date in the event that ByteDance had not come up with a solution that satisfied the US government.
One senior commerce department official dismissed suggestions that November 12 had been chosen because it was after the US election. Some Trump campaign officials had raised concerns that banning TikTok would hurt the president with younger Americans.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with the election,” said the official.
Asked if the Trump administration had considered restrictions that would have forced Apple and Google to remove TikTok from app stores in other countries, such as Japan, the UK, or Australia, the official said they had decided to focus on the US.
“We certainly took a very broad look at what could be done. But the president’s intention is to protect American privacy and the security of the US,” he said. “Our actions are specifically targeted to do just that.”
The battle over TikTok is the latest example of the much tougher stance Mr Trump has taken against China in recent months. Some critics question why he is targeting an app such as TikTok that is largely used by teenagers, but experts said that the data the app gathered on its users threatened US security.
“Big data is the core of intelligence now,” said James Lewis, a cyber expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is the most intense espionage campaign against the US since the Reagan administration. We are engaged in an intense espionage contest — a spy war — with China.”
Mr Trump last month said TikTok posed a security threat by “potentially allowing China to track the locations of federal employees . . . build dossiers of personal information for blackmail and conduct corporate espionage”.
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But Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown professor who was White House Asia adviser to Barack Obama, said the administration had “never articulated the national security rationale for banning TikTok”.
“They simply say that the potential to collect Americans’ data is a national security risk but provide no evidence,” he added.
He said there were “multiple and legitimate concerns about tech trade with China” but that US officials were “letting their anxiety and attitude get the best of them”.
Asked whether he believed that China would retaliate against the moves, he said: “Well, that’s up to them.”
Feng Chucheng, an analyst at Plenum, a China-based risk consultancy, said Beijing would be unlikely to take a dramatic response at this point, because the US move was “limited”.
“China will not take any substantial move, but will take a symbolic stance to criticise the US for its unilateral move against Chinese tech firms,” he said.
Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in Beijing
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