Trump issues order effectively banning TikTok: Everything you need to know – CNET

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TikTok, popular among teens, lets users add music and effects to short videos.


Angela Lang/CNET

This story is part of Generation China, CNET’s series exploring the nation’s technological ambition.

President Donald Trump ramped up pressure on TikTok, the popular short-video app, on Thursday evening, issuing an executive order that would effectively ban the app in the US next month.

The order bars “transactions” with ByteDance, the app’s Chinese owner, a move that could potentially affect Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, which distribute the popular software in the US. A similar order targets WeChat, a messaging app owned by Chinese giant Tencent. Trump issued the orders under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a law that allows the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual or extraordinary threat to the US.

“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” the executive order reads. “At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.”

Trump’s move comes after weeks of high drama involving TikTok. The president has had TikTok in his sights since early July, when he said he would take action against the company in response to China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an earlier interivew that Trump was considering the ban because the app could make US user data accessible to the Chinese government. The administration’s focus then turned to forcing a sale of the app to a US company, and Microsoft entered into discussions with ByteDance to purchase part of the business. (Microsoft declined to comment on the executive order.)

TikTok didn’t respond to a request for comment but blasted the executive order in a blunt blog post that accused the administration of acting in bad faith. The company indicated it would sue if necessary.

“For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed,” TikTok’s blog post reads. “What we encountered instead was that the administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”

Rising concerns about TikTok’s ability to access the personal data of US users come as TikTok sees its popularity explode. The app has gotten a new boost from the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing in people looking to escape the boredom of lockdown. It’s been downloaded more than 2 billion times, according to research firm Sensor Tower, with 623 million coming during the first half of this year. India had been its largest market, followed by Brazil and the US.

The US isn’t alone in worrying about the app. India has already banned TikTok, and Australia is also considering blocking it. Trump cited the India ban in his executive order.

In a move that could smooth things over with some lawmakers, TikTok said on July 22 that it plans to hire 10,000 people in the US over the next three years. The company said it would add roles in engineering, sales, content moderation and customer service in California, New York, Texas, Florida and Tennessee. TikTok has also said that it’s setting up a new data center in Europe and will invest 420 million euros ($500 million) in Ireland. 

Here’s what you need to know about the political backlash against TikTok.


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Why is the Trump administration worried about TikTok?

TikTok has drawn the attention of the Trump administration, as well as other parts of the government, because of concerns it scoops up information on Americans that could be turned over to the Chinese government. The US Army and Navy have banned service members from downloading the app to government-issued phones. Both the US House of Representatives and the Senate have voted to prohibit the use of TikTok on all government-issued phones. Two senators have also requested that the Department of Justice open an investigation of TikTok, as well as videoconferencing app Zoom. 

The concern stems in part from the perceived inability of Chinese companies to reject requests from China’s ruling Communist Party to access user data. China critics often cite a 2017 law that requires its companies and citizens to comply with all matters of national security. TikTok says all US user data is stored in the US, with a backup in Singapore. TikTok also says none of its data is subject to Chinese law. 

The statements didn’t satisfy the Trump administration.

“TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories,” the order reads. “This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”

TikTok’s access to US users’ data may well be worth investigating. There’ll always be concerns when apps from foreign companies collect large amounts of user data, said tech policy expert Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Policy Hub.

But, she added, “it’s unclear how much effort the administration will put into actually investigating the seriousness of the specific security concerns with the app versus using this as a threat for broader geopolitical leverage.”

What has TikTok done to address those concerns?

The company’s blog post following the executive order makes clear it isn’t happy. 

“We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request. In fact, we make our moderation guidelines and algorithm source code available in our Transparency Center, which is a level of accountability no peer company has committed to,” TikTok said. “We even expressed our willingness to pursue a full sale of the US business to an American company.”

TikTok has emphasized its ties to the US and its independence from China. On July 29, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, an American, promised more transparency around how the app works, including making its algorithm available to experts. He called on other companies to do the same thing.

Following comments by Trump on July 31 about a TikTok ban, the company proposed selling the US operations to an American company. That would put the data of TikTok’s US users in the hands of a domestic company. 

Still, the app’s far-flung creators are clearly nervous about its future. Many are encouraging their followers to migrate with them to other platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook-owned Instagram. Instagram recently launched a new feature, called Reels, designed to compete with TikTok and attract creators. (TikTok hilariously trolled Instagram with a well-timed tweet on the day of the launch.)

Can the US make ByteDance sell its US operations?

The executive order wasn’t the only way the federal government could demand the sale of a foreign company. It could also go through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

This panel, part of the US Department of Commerce, was already investigating TikTok with regard to national security concerns. The investigation, first reported in November 2019, could have required a sale of TikTok’s US operations.

The committee has jurisdiction because it reviews foreign ownership and control of companies in the US. ByteDance got its foothold in the US when it purchased Musical.ly in 2017 for $800 million and subsequently rebranded it as TikTok. The acquisition helped TikTok gain traction with US teens.

There’s recent precedent for Chinese companies selling off sections of their businesses. In March, Chinese company Kunlun agreed to sell its controlling stake in gay dating app Grindr after the committee raised national security concerns.

A day before the executive order on TikTok was issued, the US Department of State unveiled an effort to protect individual and corporate privacy. Dubbed Clean Network, the initiative would include removing from US stores any apps that “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation.”

What’s the status of a sale of TikTok?

The situation has changed almost as quickly as videos scroll on the app. Microsoft has acknowledged that it’s pursuing a deal for TikTok’s operations in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The deal, however, might be larger, according to The Financial Times, which reported the software giant might also be interested in purchasing all of TikTok’s global operations. (TikTok isn’t available in China, where a sister app is used.) A deal could be worth between $10 billion and $30 billion, according to CNBC. The large price range may reflect the different proposed deal structures.

The executive order leaves open the prospects of Microsoft reaching an agreement, since it doesn’t go into effect until next month. The president has suggested the US should receive a portion of the transaction price if a deal is struck. It’s unclear whether the government has the authority to request such a payment

Negotiations could be wrapped up within three weeks, CNBC reported, sooner than the Sept. 15 deadline that the company had initially suggested.

Other companies are also reportedly interested, though it’s unclear how seriously they might pursue a deal.

Will this order completely take away TikTok? 

The government could use the executive order to require Apple and Google to pull TikTok from their app stores. But these companies could put up a fight. (Apple and Google didn’t respond to requests for comment on Thursday’s order.)

“The tech community will be very hesitant to go along with this app ban,” said Wayne Lam, an independent technology analyst. “It sets a precedent for the government to ban other apps or even for other global apps to be inaccessible to the US market.”

Even if the app does disappear from app stores, users can install apps on Android devices without downloading them from the Google Play Store, said Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst at Creative Strategies. 

“I don’t know at that point how you police that,” Milanesi said.

The government also can’t make a specific app illegal for everyday folks to use, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.

“There is no law that would authorize the federal government to ban ordinary Americans from using an app,” he said.

The US can’t keep the app from working on the internet, which some other countries can do, said Arturo Filasto, a co-founder of the Open Observatory of Network Interference. “There is no central place where you can go to and implement a unified filtering strategy, like there is in places like China and Iran,” Filasto said.

The government could order all ISPs in the country to block the app, but there’s no guarantee that TikTok wouldn’t find a way to get around those blocking efforts, Filasto said.