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What Trump administration ban means for users of TikTok and WeChat

The Trump administration is going ahead with plans to ban two popular Chinese social media apps. Starting Sunday, Americans will no longer be able to download TikTok or WeChat from Apple or Google app stores, although current versions of TikTok will still be usable. What are the concerns motivating the policy? Nick Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED Magazine, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the Trump administration is moving forward now with plans to ban the popular Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat.

    Some of those changes will begin to take effect this weekend, but the action will ramp up after the election in the case of TikTok.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this is what's scheduled to happen. Starting on Sunday, Americans will not be able to download TikTok or WeChat apps from Apple or Google's app stores. WeChat users in the U.S. will also not be able to use the app to send messages or mobile payments to family or friends anywhere in the world.

    There are a lot of questions about how this is going to play out and what's behind this larger battle between China and the Trump administration.

    Joining me now is Nick Thompson. He is the editor in chief of "Wired" magazine, and he joins me now for more.

    Nick Thompson, great to have you on the show.

    For millions of Americans who use WeChat and TikTok, what does this practically mean for them?

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Well, practically, in the case of WeChat, it means you won't be able to use it. You won't be able to keep in touch with your friends in China through WeChat. You won't be able to do business through WeChat. That will start Sunday. And it's a big deal.

    For people who use TikTok, the changes won't be as dramatic. You just won't be able to download the new version of the app after Sunday and you won't be able to download it onto a new phone.

    But it won't be until November that a real ban would come into effect. And my guess is that a deal and a compromise gets worked out before.

    So, TikTok will probably stay, but WeChat is going away.

  • William Brangham:

    Just for people who are not following this or may not be familiar with these apps, let's just talk briefly.

    WeChat is kind of a combination of Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, all-encompassing. TikTok is this enormously popular with young people app that allows you to make and share fun, snappy videos.

    The allegation that the Trump administration is making for these actions are that these apps somehow represent a national security threat. Explain their argument. And what is the evidence behind it?

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    So, the Trump administration's argument is that these apps collect enormous amounts of data. They know where you are. They know what I.P. address you're connecting to.

    They know all kinds of personal information, because you're on your phone, and your phone knows your location at any point, and knows all kinds of things about you. They argue that the Chinese government, potentially having access to all that data, is a real risk for Americans.

    The counterargument would be, there's very little evidence that that data has gotten to the Chinese government. And, in fact, the same data is collected by American social media companies. So there's nothing totally out of the ordinary in what these apps do.

    I also think there's an interesting argument that Trump administration could make, but hasn't made, which is that China, through TikTok, could try to manipulate American politics by manipulating the algorithm. That would be a different, but interesting allegation.

  • William Brangham:

    To use it sort of to spread information on the platform into the phones of millions of Americans.

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Yes. They could do that.

  • William Brangham:

    So, just to touch back on this issue about the potential of the Chinese government going to a Chinese-owned company and saying, give us your data, for people who don't understand how Chinese society works in this regard, that's not an unreasonable thing to be afraid of, right?

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    No, that is an entirely reasonable thing to be afraid of.

    Any company that is Chinese-owned has to have very close relationships with the Chinese government and has to comply with Chinese requests, which are often like that. TikTok has tried to set up various firewalls to protect itself. But the Trump administration has decided those firewalls are not sufficient.

  • William Brangham:

    So, for those people who have been following the twisty path that this has taken, the goalposts have moved around a bit. There was talk of a ban. There was talk of maybe ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, would have to sell TikTok to an American firm.

    Where does that stand now?

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Yes, the goalposts have changed and the conversation has changed.

    Where it stands right now is that ByteDance is likely to control majority access of TikTok, and, most importantly, to control TikTok's algorithm, whereas an American partner, most likely Oracle, would host Americans' user data.

    So the data that the Trump administration is quite worried about would be hosted in the United States, but Oracle would be a minority partner. So it's a much smaller step than what the Trump administration initially asked for, which was an outright sale of TikTok.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if the concern is trying to protect Americans' privacy, the privacy of their digital data, would that step satisfy that?

    If Oracle was holding that information here, but TikTok still lived — quote, unquote — "in China," does that satisfy that concern?

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Yes, absolutely. I mean, that is a great question.

    And I think that it probably does satisfy that concern. I also think that the fundamental concern is much more one of the general tech war with China. I mean, this is a subset of a conversation that has been going on for a couple of years, where the United States government is really trying to crack down on the technological power of China.

    China's becoming much less open to technology companies in the United States, and we're splitting, sometimes called a splinter net, into the United States Internet and the Chinese Internet. And this is something that many people in the United States, including the Trump administration, are advocating for, and it's something that many other people find extremely dangerous and potentially inefficient.

  • William Brangham:

    Just as you're saying, it is being seen as a proxy war between the two superpowers.

    I mean, if you wanted to go about doing this, it seems like you would institute a much more broader policy that applied to all Americans' data, rather than, per se, picking on one company, two companies, three companies.

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Yes, that is a very smart critique of what's going on right now.

    So, one can argue that what the Trump administration should have done, if they're really concerned about data protection and they're really concerned about China, is, they should have come up with a set of blanket policies, and they should have come up with a set of blanket rules, instead of charging at TikTok and then sort of changing direction, changing the conversation, changing what exactly was being required, which has led us into a very strange Whac-A-Mole situation.

    So what's happened is this enormously, enormously important conversation about the tech dynamics between the United States and China, one of the most important conversations in all of tech, has gotten tangled up in this nasty, crazy and quite confusing fight over TikTok.

    And that is a result of American policy that, as you suggest, has kind of shifted around in ways that are sometimes hard to fathom.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Nick Thompson, editor in chief of "Wired" magazine, thank you for helping us wade through all of this.

  • Nicholas Thompson:

    Thank you so much.

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