The Trump administration said Friday it would bar the Chinese-owned mobile apps WeChat and TikTok from U.S. app stores as of midnight Sunday, a significant escalation in America’s tech fight with China that takes aim at two popular services used by more than 100 million people in the United States.
In a series of moves designed to render WeChat essentially useless within the United States, the government will also ban American companies from processing transactions for WeChat or hosting its internet traffic as of midnight Sunday.
Similar restrictions will go into effect for TikTok on Nov. 12 unless the company can assuage the administration’s concerns that the popular social media app poses a threat to U.S. national security. TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, is currently in talks to do a deal with the American software maker Oracle. The Commerce Department said the prohibitions could be lifted if TikTok resolves the administration’s national security concerns by the November deadline.
“Today’s actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
The actions follow an Aug. 6 executive order by Mr. Trump, in which he argued that TikTok and WeChat collect data from American users that could be accessed by the Chinese government. The administration has threatened fines of up to $1 million and up to 20 years in prison for violations of the order.
TikTok spokesman Josh Gartner said in a statement that the company was disappointed in the Commerce Department’s decision.
“We will continue to 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,” he said.
Tencent Holdings, which owns WeChat, said in a statement it was reviewing the new rules and had submitted a proposal to address the government’s national security concerns about the app. It said it would “continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the U.S. ways to achieve a long-term solution.”
Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Ross, in an interview on Fox Business Network on Friday morning, said that the ban would initially have a much greater impact on WeChat.
“For all practical purposes it will be shut down in the U.S., but only in the U.S., as of midnight Monday,” Mr. Ross said.
TikTok would also face some changes, but would still be allowed to function until Nov. 12, Mr. Ross said, at which point it would face the same ban as WeChat if there was no deal that satisfied the administration’s concerns.
“As to TikTok, the only real change as of Sunday night will be users won’t have access to improved updated apps, upgraded apps or maintenance,” he said.
That delay will allow users of the popular social media app — who are primarily young — to continue using the service ahead of the Nov. 3 election. TikTok has increasingly become a political force, with its users posting in support of their favored candidates and offering commentary on current events. It has also been utilized as a political tool — hundreds of teenage TikTok users claimed credit for low turnout at a rally for Mr. Trump in Tulsa, Okla. earlier this year.
Specifically, the U.S. government will ban American companies from transferring funds or processing payments through WeChat. It will also prohibit companies from offering internet hosting, content delivery networks, internet transit or peering services to WeChat, or using the app’s code in other software or services in the United States.
Many of the internet services targeted by the government’s order “are like the FedEx for the data business,” said Charlie Chai, an analyst for 86Research, a research firm focused on Chinese companies. “If no FedEx is willing to carry the data package for WeChat, then WeChat is dead” in the United States.
The actions take aim at two of China’s most popular and successful tech exports, which knit together nearly two billion people worldwide.
TikTok, which does not directly operate in China, has become a wildly popular platform for sharing viral videos in the United States. WeChat is at the center of digital life in China, functioning as a chat app, a payment platform and a news source for people in China and the Chinese diaspora around the world. It is also a conduit for Chinese propaganda and surveillance.
As of Friday morning, the Chinese government had not issued any statements, and it was not immediately clear if China would retaliate. China has long blocked access to such American social media as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp that it cannot readily monitor or censor.
Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Both have said in the past that they comply with the local laws in each country they serve.
Apple is the highest-profile American tech company in China, and could have the biggest target on its back if agrees to carry out the administration’s restrictions. Apple assembles most of its products in China, and the country is Apple’s biggest sales market after the United States, putting it at risk from any retaliation by Beijing.
Other tech companies responded to the announcement with concerns about potential retaliation that could hamstring U.S. services. Adam Mosseri, who leads Facebook’s Instagram product, said in a tweet that a TikTok ban “would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly.”
Facebook, which does not operate its services in China, has tried to leverage Washington’s fear of Chinese companies to its advantage, including citing it as a reason not to try and subject the U.S. tech giant to antitrust actions. But Mr. Mosseri said that the cost of other “countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”
Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s interim global head, said in a response to Mr. Mosseri that Facebook should “publicly join our challenge and support our litigation” against the ban. TikTok sued the Trump administration over the ban last month, arguing that the move had denied it of due process.
Tech companies have raised concerns about arbitrarily blocking apps without a clear policy process and have suggested it infringes on the First Amendment, said Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Segal said it was not entirely clear why the administration had chosen to go after these two Chinese services, and not other similar ones. “A lot of it just feels to me to be improvisational,” he said.
In a call with reporters Friday, a senior official with the Commerce Department pushed back on the idea that a ban would curtail Americans’ freedom of speech, saying that the administration had chosen to target these apps in part because they are used to censor speech.
“We are not China. We are not attempting to censor speech. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” the official said.
The Commerce Department declined to say whether the regulations could be used as a template for other Chinese companies, but noted that the secretary had the ability to prohibit other transactions by the companies in the future if it was determined to be in the interest of national security.
The administration is already taking a wider scope to review Tencent’s activities in the United States beyond WeChat. The government has sent letters asking a series of questions about data policies to several companies in which Tencent has partial ownership, including Epic Games, the maker of the popular game Fortnite, Riot Games and Spotify, according to people familiar with the situation.
Mr. Ross portrayed the threat from Chinese apps in stark terms, likening it to a window that allows Beijing to peer into the everyday lives of Americans.
“What they collect are data on locality, data on what you are streaming toward, what your preferences are, what you are referencing, every bit of behavior that the American side is indulging in becomes available to whoever is watching on the other side,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to squelch.”
In its announcement, the Commerce Department said that both WeChat and TikTok collected information from their users including location data, network activity and browsing histories. As Chinese companies, they are also subject to China’s policy of “civil-military fusion” and mandatory cooperation with Chinese intelligence services, it said.
Cybersecurity experts have debated the extent to which the bans would address national security threats. Many other Chinese-owned companies gather data from mobile users in the United States, as do Facebook, Google and other non-Chinese services.
James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration’s moves seemed aimed at pushing ByteDance to give the U.S. more control over TikTok.
“It looks like it’s largely a continuation of the pressure tactics to get ByteDance to make a deal,” said Mr. Lewis. “WeChat is sort of the human sacrifice of this deal. They’ve gone nuclear on them.”
TikTok has been downloaded nearly 200 million times in the U.S., about 9 percent of the app’s downloads outside of China, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. WeChat has been downloaded nearly 22 million times in the U.S. since 2014, or about 7 percent of its downloads outside of China, Sensor Tower said.
The ability of the U.S. to enforce the ban remains an open question. As Chinese authorities know, internet bans are easier declared than enforced. While the U.S. rules block the app from stores within the country, workarounds will likely materialize. Users could switch their settings to access to an app store outside the U.S., or switch to other Tencent apps, like a messaging service called QQ.
A Commerce Department official on Friday acknowledged that such workarounds were possible, and said the department’s focus would be not on policing individual users but gradually limiting the ability of the apps to operate in the United States over time.
The official declined to discuss enforcement but said that the administration hoped to work with American tech companies, noting that “every company that this touches is becoming increasingly aware of the challenges that these applications pose.”
Apple and Google regularly remove apps from their app stores for a variety of reasons, including security flaws, violations of the companies’ rules and, in some places, requests from the government.
In China, Apple has appeared to pull thousands of apps from its App Store in the country under orders from the government, including certain gaming apps and news apps like The New York Times. Last year, Apple removed an app from its App Store in Hong Kong that helped protesters there track police after it was criticized by Chinese state media.
And in Russia, the messaging app Telegram complained in 2018 that Apple removed it there because of the app’s dispute with the Russian government.
Because of Apple and Google’s dominance of the smartphone market — they make the software that backs nearly all the world’s smartphones — governments can target the companies to try to roll out such bans, which otherwise could prove tricky to enforce given the open nature of the internet.
Apple, in particular, has been used as a tool by governments because it only allows apps and software to be downloaded onto iPhones via its App Store. That means forcing Apple to remove an app would effectively stop any new user from downloading it.
People who already have the app on their phones can continue to use it. Yet eventually the app will become obsolete on those phones because the app’s developer will not be able to update it to make it compatible with updates Apple and Google make to their smartphone software.
On Google’s Android software, users can download apps and software from outside of its official Google Play Store. That means requiring Google to pull an app from the Play Store would only create a hurdle for some users to downloading that app on Android devices.
Android underpins most of the world’s smartphones, in part because of its dominance in many developing countries like India, but Apple and Google roughly split the U.S. market.
Experts said that the bans on providing hosting and other services to WeChat’s American service could quickly disable the app for users in the United States.
Mr. Lewis said that it appeared the app’s payment functions would not work under the rules. Whether users would be able to message other people would hinge on how effective the administration had been at banning companies from connecting users in the United States with WeChat’s infrastructure in China.
“And it looks to me like they’re certainly trying,” he said.