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Is TikTok Being Banned? U.S. Delays Plan to Block Downloads With Deal Reached

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09/20/2020 | 02:27pm EDT

By Sarah E. Needleman

TikTok and WeChat users in the U.S. were granted a reprieve from potential bans of the apps, but for different reasons.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., will partner with Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. to become a U.S.-based company, a deal that received the blessing of President Trump. Officials in China will also have to sign off on the transaction, though the deal's structure of keeping TikTok's core algorithms in ByteDance's hands improves its chances of receiving their blessing.

Separately, a federal judge in California temporarily blocked the Trump administration's executive order curbing Americans' use of WeChat, owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd. The ban would have restricted U.S. users from downloading the app as well as engaging in other functions on WeChat such as transferring money as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

The Trump administration had sought bans on both apps, citing national-security and data-privacy concerns.

Here is more on what the latest developments mean for the future of TikTok and WeChat in the U.S.:

Does the TikTok deal and the judge's WeChat decision mean the apps will still be usable after Sunday night?

As of now, yes. In TikTok's case, the Commerce Department said with the deal announcement it would temporarily delay a ban on downloads and updates of the app. The ban is now set to take effect Sept. 27 but could be further delayed or removed if the new partnership goes forward as proposed.

With WeChat, the judge's ruling halts the effort to block U.S. users' access to the app. Tencent said it was reviewing the judgment and the U.S. government will have to decide how to respond as well.

If a ban for either TikTok and WeChat were to proceed, U.S. authorities also could force companies including Apple Inc. and Google to remove the apps from their mobile app stores, preventing new downloads and restricting current users from receiving software updates. Over time, that could diminish usability of the apps.

How will people be able to access TikTok if it is banned after all?

Americans might have to become more like Chinese internet users, some of whom use virtual private networks and set their locations outside the country to get around China's national internet firewall, which blocks numerous websites, including Google and Facebook. Similar VPN workarounds could be an option for U.S. TikTok users.

But even if Apple and Google take TikTok off their marketplaces, experts say users could still access TikTok and WeChat through sideloaded apps, or ones that haven't gone through Google and Apple's verification processes. This method, however, could potentially expose users to security vulnerabilities and malware.

What are Apple and Google planning?

Apple and Google owner Alphabet Inc. didn't respond to requests for comment.

Avery Gardiner, general counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said earlier this month that Apple and Google could fight a government ban by saying that it restricts access to communication under the First Amendment. Such arguments have prevailed in censorship cases involving book publishers and newspapers, Ms. Gardiner said.

TikTok and a group representing WeChat users filed lawsuits in August challenging President Trump's executive orders issued on Aug. 6. In the filing, TikTok said it had taken vast measures to protect the privacy and security of user data in the U.S. and explained those efforts to the government in a security review. A Tencent spokesperson has said that WeChat was designed to serve international users outside of mainland China and has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security.

Has anything like this happened before?

The executive orders against TikTok and WeChat bar people in the U.S. or subject to U.S. jurisdiction from transactions on those two platforms. The president used a similar strategy last year in an executive order that effectively barred U.S. companies from buying telecommunications network gear and services from Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese firm that makes phones, tablets and 5G equipment. As with TikTok and WeChat, the government cited national-security concerns. Experts say the U.S. case against Huawei was more easily understood because Huawei's transactions involve physical hardware and other equipment.

The forced sale of TikTok's U.S. operations is unusual because it appears to make it necessary for ByteDance to separate some pieces of the app's business geographically, presenting an unusually thorny technical challenge. For now, TikTokers may have to keep dancing to save their favorite app. Vanessa Pappas, who became the interim head of TikTok last month after Chief Executive Kevin Mayer abruptly resigned, told The Wall Street Journal she aims to keep the platform open, inclusive and a place for self-expression and community.

Sebastian Herrera contributed to this article

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
ALPHABET INC. 3.80% 1616.11 Delayed Quote.20.67%
APPLE INC. -5.60% 108.86 Delayed Quote.48.29%
FACEBOOK INC -6.31% 263.11 Delayed Quote.28.19%
ORACLE CORPORATION 0.16% 56.11 Delayed Quote.5.91%
TENCENT HOLDINGS LIMITED -2.31% 591 End-of-day quote.57.35%
WALMART INC. -0.84% 138.75 Delayed Quote.16.75%
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