from the that's-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
While he had said he would do it last weekend, and then said he’d wait until September 15th (but that he wanted a finder’s fee if TikTok was sold to Microsoft), last night the Trump White House issued two executive orders regarding apps from Chinese companies. The first one claims it’s banning TikTok and the second one says it’s banning WeChat (which isn’t even that popular in the US, though it is hugely popular in China). He separately sent a letter to Congress about the TikTok ban.
As many people expected, Trump is trying to use the IEEPA, the same (already questionable) authority he used to put tariffs on a bunch of products from China at the beginning of his nonsense tradewar. This is only supposed to be used in cases of unusual or extraordinary threats — and let’s be totally blunt: TikTok is not an unusual or extraordinary threat to anything beyond President Trump’s massive ego.
Of course, among the many problems with this, the IEEPA includes exceptions and a big one is that it does not apply to “any information or informational materials.” And I’d argue (and I imagine TikTok’s lawyers will argue) that means he can’t ban apps via an executive order under the IEEPA. But, of course, that will have to be fought out in court (and might become moot if ByteDance finalizes its sale to an American company).
Still, this is all nonsense:
I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873 of May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain). Specifically, the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People?s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.
TikTok, a video-sharing mobile application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., has reportedly been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally. TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans? personal and proprietary information ? potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.
Again, tons of apps suck up this same information — and most of our devices are built in China. The idea that TikTok is being used for “blackmail” or “corporate espionage” is beyond ludicrous. And, yeah, fine, federal employees perhaps shouldn’t have an app like TikTok on their phone, but just tell federal employees not to use it. Don’t ban it from the US.
And then there’s this:
TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China?s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.
So… because TikTok moderates some content, the US will censor all the content? How does that make any sense at all?
In terms of what the actual order does, it bars any US person or company from conducting any transaction with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, or any subsidiary. That would likely mean that neither Apple nor Google could carry the app in their mobile app stores, which would effectively bar it from the US (and potentially large parts of the rest of the world, as well).
The WeChat order is effectively the same, barring transactions with WeChat’s parent company Tencent Holdings “or any subsidiary of that entity.” Of course, that raised a bunch of alarm bells among gamers. Tencent owns or has invested in basically every gaming company out there, and fully owns Riot Games, makers of League of Legends. It also holds a 40% stake in Epic Games.
Honestly, it sounds like, in typical Trumpland fashion, no one in the White House recognized this. So after people started to freak out, they clarified that they didn’t mean to include the gaming companies:
Video game companies owned by Tencent will NOT be affected by this executive order!
White House official confirmed to the LA Times that the EO only blocks transactions related to WeChat
So Riot Games (League of Legends), Epic Games (Fortnite), et al are safe
— Sam Dean ? (@SamAugustDean) August 7, 2020
Of course… that could change. And who knows? A plain reading of the order certainly should bar League of Legends as well. And, of course, part of this demonstrates the absolute ridiculousness of these “bans” in the first place: lots of apps (and even more devices and equipment) come from China. Doing a blanket ban is idiotic and short-sighted. Not only will it not work, not only will it deprive people of useful technology, but it justifies the Chinese approach of splintering and fragmenting the internet and censoring foreign companies. It’s an extremely dangerous game the President is playing here, with a poorly-aimed sledge hammer.
And that doesn’t get into the fact that just banning WeChat alone will be devastating for tons of American citizens and residents with family in China. While WeChat may not be particularly popular within the US, its popularity in China means that many relatives in the US rely on WeChat to communicate with family. Cutting them off is, again, embracing the Chinese Great Firewall approach.
Again, I don’t believe that the President actually has this authority, even under his already extremely broad interpretation of the IEEPA. That means there will almost certainly be multiple lawsuits over all this, and (I’m guessing) a request for a temporary restraining order to block those orders from going into effect. But still, if on Wednesday night the Trump White House made it clear it wanted to splinter the internet, last night it started to carry out that goal in practice.