President Donald Trump signed an executive order that gives the Chinese messaging app WeChat 45 days before it is banned in the United States.
The move comes concurrently with a similar executive order against TikTok.
The Trump administration claims that these apps could pass data on US citizens back to the Chinese government.
However, the ramifications of WeChat’s ban could be far greater than TikTok’s, due to the app’s range of features and the prevalence of its use in China.
What is WeChat?
WeChat is a messaging platform which has approximately one billion active users each month.
The app is owned by the Chinese multinational Tencent, which has invested heavily in a number of technology companies including Reddit, Spotify, Snapchat, Tesla, and Uber.
It also owns Riot Games, which makes League of Legends, and a substantial stake in the makers of Fortnite, Epic Games.
It has been claimed by a report from cyber research group Citizen Lab that WeChat censored messages about the coronavirus on its platform – stopping them from being sent through their servers.
What can you do on WeChat?
WeChat has a number of functions including messaging, photo hosting, payment methods such as the contactless WeChat Pay, ride hailing services, and games.
The app has become near-ubiquitous in China, facilitating many digital transactions, as well has having strong user bases in other countries.
What does the Trump administration say?
The Trump administration has claimed that “WeChat automatically captures vast swathes of information from its users. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”
It also says that WeChat “captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.”
In the WeChat order, as in the executive order against TikTok, the president cited the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act, implying the existence of the apps in the US constituted a national emergency. It is likely these proposed bans will be subject to legal challenges.
What does WeChat say?
In a statement, a Tencent spokesperson told The Independent it was “reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry comments on US plans to ban TikTok and WeChat.
Will WeChat be banned?
It has been argued that the laws banning WeChat and TikTok could run into legal trouble. Law professor at the University of Nebraska Kyle Langvardt told Business Insider that “First Amendment problems“ would hinder the legislation.
”The reason is that they discriminate based on the identity of the speaker (Bytedance, Tencent), and also, arguably, based on the 'content' of their speech,“ he added.
TikTok has also said that the executive order against itself is illegal, as it shows “no due process or adherence to the law”.
“What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses", it also wrote.
But, in the event that a president that has already been charged with abuse of power finds away around that issue, the order says that “any transaction that is ‘related to WeChat by any person’ or with its parent company Tencent” is affected.
That said, this wording may be untrue. A White House official reportedly told the LA Times that the order only applies to WeChat and as such other properties such as League of Legends and Fortnite would be protected.
Moreover, WeChat has a much smaller user base in the US – 1.5 million compared to 1 billion in China – compared to the 100 million of TikTok’s userbase, so it may not experience the same backlash the Trump administation has received from TikTok users at the prospect of the apps ban.
WeChat also has already been reportedly found to be censoring information seemingly at the behest of the Chinese government and has not made the impassioned defences that TikTok has.
National security issues aside, the decision may also be made by financial forces. It has been noted that if the ban is limited to WeChat, the Trump administration could be criticised for allowing Tencent to work with other technology companies, such as data sent via League of Legends.
It could also have great implications for Apple’s bottom line. If the smartphone giant is forced to remove WeChat from its devices, something which the Executive Order implies that it will have to, it would severely affect the company’s sales in China.