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US-China tensions

US to ban WeChat and halt TikTok downloads Sunday

China criticizes decision and vows to protect interests of its companies

"WeChat for all practical purposes will be shut down," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross says, adding that the "real shutdown" for TikTok would come after Nov. 12 in the absence of a deal.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- TikTok and WeChat will be banned from U.S. app stores starting Sunday, the Commerce Department said Friday, following President Donald Trump's decision last month to issue executive orders targeting the popular Chinese-owned services.

Any use of WeChat's code, functions or services will be banned in the U.S. from Sunday. The same ban kicks in for TikTok on Nov. 12 if a deal with an American buyer falls through.

Meanwhile, new downloads for TikTok will be prohibited starting Sunday as Washington steps up its action against the two widely used apps, which it deems a security threat. Transactions outside the U.S. are not targeted.

"Our rule is not doing the same thing to TikTok as to WeChat," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a Friday morning interview with Fox Business.

While both will have to leave U.S. app stores on Sunday, for existing users, "WeChat for all practical purposes will be shut down," Ross said.

"As for TikTok, it's just upgrades, maintenance, things like that, that would be shut down at this stage," Ross said. "The real shutdown would come after Nov. 12 in the event that there is not another transaction."

In a statement on its website on Saturday, China's Ministry of Commerce said it "firmly opposes" the U.S. decision to ban WeChat and TikTok. It added that it will "take necessary measures" to safeguard the interests of Chinese companies if the U.S. does not stop its "wrongdoing."

Attention now turns to the prospects for a deal to let TikTok avoid that fate. U.S. enterprise software group Oracle has put forward a partnership proposal that it says would ensure the data security the Trump administration seeks.

Asked whether such a deal would be before or after the Nov. 3 presidential election, President Donald Trump told reporters Friday: "I think it could go quickly."

"We have great companies talking to us about it," Trump said, mentioning Oracle, Microsoft and Walmart.

"Just know we're not going to do anything to jeopardize security," the president added.

Vanessa Pappas, TikTok's interim CEO, said in a Twitter post that "this type of ban would be bad for the industry."

"We invite Facebook and Instagram to publicly join our challenge and support our litigation," Pappas said. "This is a moment to put aside our competition and focus on core principles like freedom of expression and due process of law."

A spokesperson for Tencent Holdings, which operates WeChat, said the Shenzhen-based company has "put forward a comprehensive proposal to address [U.S.] concerns" and is "reviewing the latest announcement" from the commerce department.

"WeChat was designed to serve international users outside of mainland China and has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security," the spokesperson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the administration's move, saying in a statement that selectively banning entire platforms like TikTok and WeChat violates the First Amendment and does little to protect personal data from abuse.

The long-awaited action against ByteDance-owned TikTok and WeChat intensifies U.S. curbs on Chinese tech as part of a wide-ranging battle over tech between Washington and Beijing.

Trump signed an executive order last month to ban transactions with the two apps on Sept. 20, but left the task of specifying those transactions to the Department of Commerce.

The Department of Commerce's statement said WeChat and TikTok each collect "vast swathes of data from users... each is an active participant in China's civil-military fusion and is subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP."

"The Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S.," the Commerce Department said. "Today's announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality."

The department's announcement clarifies what transactions will be prohibited under the Trump executive order, including transferring funds or processing payments via WeChat using such functions as WeChat Pay.

The ban also means Apple and Google must delete the apps from their U.S. app stores. Existing users would no longer be able to download updates.

The ban comes as ByteDance and U.S. enterprise software group Oracle try to reach a deal to allow TikTok to continue to operate in the U.S. The two companies have submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department earlier this week, under which Oracle would serve as the social media app's technology partner in the U.S. The proposal has yet to be approved by the Trump administration.

"In our proposal to the U.S. administration, we've already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and U.S. government oversight of U.S. data security," a TikTok spokesperson said.

"An American technology provider would be responsible for maintaining and operating the TikTok network in the U.S., which would include all services and data serving U.S. consumers," the spokesperson added.

Daniel Ives, managing director at Wedbush Securities, said the U.S. action against TikTok could become a turning point toward escalation, comparing the move to a battle that started the American Civil War.

There is a risk that "if a [TikTok] deal is not reached over the next 48 hours with approval by the Chinese government around source code access and majority ownership, this shutdown move could be a Fort Sumter moment in the US/China cold tech war tensions with retaliation on the horizon," Ives said.

The Commerce Department said Trump set a Nov. 12 deadline to resolve the national security concerns posed by TikTok. "If they are, the prohibitions in this order may be lifted," the department said.

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