Biden Revokes TikTok, WeChat Bans and Orders Security Review
The Tencent Holdings Ltd. WeChat and ByteDance Ltd. TikTok app icons are displayed on a smartphone in U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Biden Revokes TikTok, WeChat Bans and Orders Security Review

President Joe Biden is revoking Trump-era bans on the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat on Wednesday, and instead will review software applications from foreign adversaries that could pose a risk to Americans’ sensitive data, senior administration officials said.

Biden, in an executive order, is directing Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to evaluate the apps and take action against those that pose a security risk. The order replaces former President Donald Trump’s actions, aimed specifically at Chinese companies including TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. and WeChat owner Tencent Holdings Ltd., that tried to ban the use of those apps in the U.S.

Trump’s measures have been blocked by federal judges, who said the former administration hadn’t shown those apps in particular posed a national security threat justifying a ban.

Biden Revokes TikTok, WeChat Bans and Orders Security Review

The new order aims to clarify the criteria that the U.S. views as harming Americans’ sensitive data, the officials said. The data includes personally identifiable information and genetic information that would go to people directly linked to foreign adversaries, including China, according to a White House fact sheet.

A separate national security review into the sale of TikTok to an American company is ongoing and not connected to Wednesday’s action, a senior administration official said.

China will continue to safeguard the interests of its companies, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

“China urges the U.S. side to earnestly respect the principles of market economy and international and economic trade rules; stop overstretching the concept of national security; stop abusing state power to suppress Chinese high-tech companies; and treat Chinese enterprises in a fair, just and non-discriminatory manner,” he said.

The U.S. announcement comes as Biden on Wednesday morning left Washington for a week-long trip to Europe where China is expected to be a major focus of discussion among the Group of Seven nations.

The new administration’s framework to evaluate apps will be flexible, allowing it to take a tailored approach that addresses the specific risks of each company, one U.S. official said. When pressed during a briefing Wednesday, administration officials said TikTok and WeChat could be part of the Commerce Department review but declined to say whether the revised order still left them subject to a potential ban.

Commerce will take action under existing authority that allows it to block transactions in the information and communications technology services supply chain. This authority was first issued by Trump and is now being implemented by the Biden administration.

The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, which successfully sued the U.S. government over Trump’s restrictions last year, said it welcomed the move to revoke the ban. Trump’s “wrong-headed ban on WeChat” would have “led to the unprecedented shutdown of a major platform for communications relied on by millions of people in the United States,” said Michael Bien, lead counsel for USWUA and other plaintiffs, in a statement. “The courts did the right thing by preventing the ban from going into effect, but the whole episode creating enormous disruption and uncertainty never should have happened in the first place.”

The Biden order authorizes the Commerce Department to begin vetting companies and their services immediately, a senior official said. Two separate reports by the Commerce Secretary on recommendations for actions and additional executive and legislative measures must be completed in 120 days and 180 days, respectively.

TikTok, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the U.S., got caught up in Trump’s crackdown on Chinese technology companies and their influence in the U.S. The administration argued that Americans’ private data gathered through the app could be handed over to the authoritarian regime in China, something TikTok has said it would never do.

Listen to the Bloomberg podcast “Foundering: The TikTok Story”

Trump ordered last August that the app, which lets users share video clips and is especially popular with young people, be sold to an American firm or face a ban in the U.S.

The forced sale got held up over differences about what constitutes American ownership and who would control TikTok’s valuable algorithm. In the meantime, several lawsuits were filed against the ban, including one from American social media influencers, who charged that the ban would violate their constitutional right to free speech. A federal judge ruled last year in the influencers’ favor.

A second federal judge later fully blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban TikTok in the U.S., finding that Trump overstepped his authority in using emergency economic powers to put the popular app out of business.

In February, the Biden administration asked a federal judge to pause litigation over the ban while the White House reviewed the ruling.

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