Biden orders new security review on TikTok, WeChat

4 minutes
Biden orders new security review on TikTok, WeChat

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden was revoking China-era restrictions on the TikTok and WeChat websites and instead will apply software applications from Western adversaries that could pose a risk to Americans' sensitive data, senior administration officials said.

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

Trump's efforts have been blocked by national judges who said the former administration had not shown that apps in particular posed a federal security threat justifying a ban.

The new order aims to clarify criteria that the USA considers sensitive data as harming Americans, officials said. According to a White House fact sheet, the information includes an personally identifiable information and foreign information that would go to people directly linked to geo-national adversaries including China.

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

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

The new Administration framework for evaluating apps will be customized to address the specific risks that each company, said one U.S. official. When pressed during a Wednesday briefing, 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 takes action under existing authority that allows it to block transactions in the information and communications technology supply chain. This authority was first implemented by Trump and is now being granted 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 welcomes the announcement to revoke the ban. Trump's wrong-headed ban on WeChat'' would have led to the unprecedented shutdown of a major platform for communications to millions of people in the United States, said Michael Bien, leading counsel for USWUA and other plaintiffs in a statement. The courts did the right thing by preventing the ban from being in effect, but the whole episode created enormous disruption and uncertainty should never have happened in the first place.

The Biden order allows the Commerce Department to begin immediately vetteing companies and their services, said a senior official. Two additional reports by the Commerce Secretary on recommendations for actions and separate executive and legislative measures should 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 US. The administration claims that Americans' private data, collected by 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 founding: The TikTok Story'.

Last August, Trump ordered that the app, which lets users share video clips and is particularly popular with American people, should be sold to an American firm or there would be a ban in the U.S.

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

After all, a second federal judge blocked the Trump administration's attempt to ban TikTok in the U.S., concluding that Trump overstepped his authority to use emergency economic powers to have popular app out of business.

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

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