The Trump administration announced Friday that WeChat and TikTok will be banned from American app stores on Sunday night, in one of the dumbest possible outcomes of an exhausting, unnecessary saga.
Banning WeChat will cut people off from their loved ones in China, a particularly cruel move during a pandemic that all but prevents international travel. TikTok users, meanwhile, will continue to be able to use the app until November 12, but the app will be removed from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, meaning new users will be unable to download the app, and TikTok parent company ByteDance will be unable to issue patches or updates to the app.
“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,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in an interview on Fox Business Network.
For a policy that is nominally based on protecting national security and the data of American users, this is one of the most counterproductive moves imaginable, considering that the most basic of all security advice is to “keep your apps updated,” because developers often issue updates that fix security holes. By banning TikTok from the app store, it will be impossible for users to update their app, meaning any existing vulnerabilities discovered by ByteDance between now and November will continue to persist for Americans and Americans only.
Earlier this summer, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning any American from transacting with Chinese software giants ByteDance and TenCent (the TenCent order is restricted to WeChat), effective November 12. The order is nominally based on protecting national security, with the administration implying that TikTok and WeChat are being used by the Chinese government to spy on or influence Americans. It has not shown any proof that this is the case.
The order essentially forced ByteDance to sell its U.S. operations of TikTok to an American company; earlier this week, ByteDance and Oracle announced a deal in which ByteDance would maintain ownership of TikTok but Oracle would control its American data. Trump has attempted to extract a payment from this deal but has been told that doing so is illegal. Friday’s order banning the social media giant from American app stores is the latest in a messy, ad-hoc series of events that accomplishes nothing but generates the chaos that the president seems to enjoy so much.