Donald Trump banned TikTok and WeChat. Sort of. For now.
The move is months in the making: Trump has been threatening to ban TikTok and WeChat over concerns they threaten US national security by giving China a chance to spy on the US. On Sunday, it seemed TikTok might have reached a deal to partner with US software firm Oracle and avoid a ban—but today, the president brought down the hammer anyway.
If the latest episode of the ongoing TikTok saga has left your head spinning, fear not: We’re here to break down what this morning’s order from the Commerce Department means for TikTok, WeChat, and their users in the US.
If you’re noticing a general freak out on TikTok, you may have accidentally doomscrolled your way into climate apocalypse TikTok…or you might be noticing American TikTokers reacting to the prospect of the president shutting down the fastest growing social media app ever.
This morning Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced it would be illegal to distribute TikTok or WeChat in the US, citing concerns that Beijing could use the apps’ vast troves of user data to snoop on Americans. For good measure, the administration also outlawed making payments using WeChat, a popular messaging app that is also owned by a Chinese company.
Relax. If you already have the app downloaded, you won’t notice much of a disruption in the short term and you can can still watch teens deliver Marxist economic analyses over stir fry recipes. The federal government doesn’t have the power to come to your door and force you to delete TikTok or WeChat—or to block the apps’ web traffic, which is the move India pulled to achieve a much harsher ban on Chinese apps in June.
Instead, the Trump administration has given Apple and Google until Sept. 20 to remove TikTok and WeChat from their app stores. After that date, those who don’t already have the apps won’t be able to download them. And those who do won’t get any more updates. Over time that will make them buggier, more susceptible to security threats, and less compatible with new software updates—but it won’t immediately block existing users from continuing to scroll and chat.
There are two deadlines. On Sept. 20, the Commerce Department will outlaw “internet hosting services,” “content delivery network services,” and any use of WeChat’s code, essentially breaking all the technical underpinnings that keep the app running. TikTok will face the same restrictions on Nov. 12.
It’s important to keep in mind the administration is standing on shaky legal ground: US courts have ruled software code is a protected form of speech, and this move will likely spawn a slew of law suits. TikTok already has one in the works. In order to pull off a complete ban, the administration would have to compel internet service providers to block web traffic to disfavored apps, essentially creating an American version of China’s Great Firewall—which is the kind of far-reaching executive action that has gotten stalled by court injunctions throughout the president’s term.
The manufactured chaos swirling around TikTok and WeChat might be the biggest immediate effect of this whole drama, according to Leeza Garber, who teaches internet law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “It’s going to take a while to work through the court cases and all the confusion around everything that’s coming out right now,” she said. “We won’t see many immediate consequences aside from reputational damage and lawsuits.”
It doesn’t seem likely. The Oracle deal was not an outright sale but a partnership that could leave TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, in control of the app. Trump told reporters this week that he’s against any deal that leaves ByteDance in charge: “If that’s the case, I’m not going to be happy with that,” he said.
The TikTok-Oracle deal is still under review with the Committee on Foreign Investments in the US, but it’s not a promising sign that the department issued a ban in the middle of the process. The companies now have until Nov. 12 to work out a new agreement before the harshest ban measures take effect.
Maybe. If TikTok really does get banned, it’s not clear what will replace the app in satisfying internet users’ insatiable hunger for strange, shortform video—a niche last filled by Vine, which shut down in 2016. Dan Fleyshman, who runs Elevator.Studio, an agency that represents social-media influencers, said the most likely outcome is an existing social media giant like Facebook will copy TikTok’s features. These deep-pocketed competitors have few compunctions about stealing upstarts’ ideas and turning them into features of their own apps (see: Instagram Stories).
Given that competitive landscape, Fleyshman said it’s unlikely a brand new app will rise up to take TikTok’s place. To break into the US market, parent company ByteDance spent nearly $1 billion marketing its app in 2018. “TikTok had billions and billions of dollars behind them, and that’s why it worked,” he said. “It’s not just because it’s a platform that’s fun and cool.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date of the WeChat ban. It takes effect Sept. 20, not Nov. 12.