Biden revokes and replaces executive order that sought to ban TikTok

By Katie Rogers and Cecilia Kang

President Joe Biden has revoked a Trump-era executive order that sought to ban the popular apps TikTok and WeChat and replaced it with one that calls for a broader review of a number of foreign-controlled applications that could pose a security risk to Americans and their data.

The Trump-era order had not been carried out “in the soundest fashion,” administration officials said in a call with reporters Wednesday, adding that the new directive would establish “clear, intelligible criteria” to evaluate national security risks posed by software applications connected to foreign governments, particularly China.

Biden’s order reflects a growing urgency among American officials, both Republican and Democrat, to aggressively counter what they see as a growing threat posed by China’s military and technology sectors. In a rare show of bipartisanship, U.S. lawmakers have also sought to reduce America’s dependence on China for supply chain technology like semiconductors, rare minerals and other equipment. On Tuesday, the Senate approved a $250 billion spending package to bolster American technology research and development.

The order is the first significant step Biden has taken to approach the saga between TikTok and the Trump administration, which tried to ban the app over national security concerns but was immediately challenged in federal court.

Analysts said the new executive order was meant to create a process that could withstand such a challenge if the Biden administration chose to ratchet up pressure on individual apps.

“It’s a bit of a troll to the Trump administration approach,” said Brian J. Fleming, an attorney who focuses on national security and international trade matters, “which was exposed in court as being a bit of a hollow process that was completely outcome driven.”

With Biden repeatedly emphasizing that growing Chinese influence has challenged not only the future of the U.S. economy but democracy itself, his administration has worked to reassess or strengthen several directives Trump made to curb China. In several cases, the president has taken a more aggressive approach than his predecessor: Last week, Biden expanded a Trump-era order by barring Americans from investing in Chinese firms linked to the country’s military or engaged in selling surveillance technology.

It is unclear how effective either order will ultimately be at stopping the spread of Chinese espionage technology, and the moves do not fully resolve the future of TikTok, a wildly popular app with 100 million American users. In September, the Trump administration followed through with an executive order banning operations of TikTok and WeChat, the popular messaging service owned by Tencent. A judge granted an injunction of the Trump order, giving TikTok a lifeline until November.At the same time, the Trump administration took on the role of dealmaker. It said TikTok could maintain U.S. operations only if it sold itself to a U.S. company and shed all Chinese-based infrastructure and ties. After rushed bids and jockeying by tech giants, Oracle and Walmart won their bid to buy a stake in the company for an undisclosed amount. Trump then rejected the deal that his administration had orchestrated.

TikTok’s woes subsided with Trump’s election defeat. Although the company is still under scrutiny with the Biden administration’s new executive order, analysts say the dramatic ups and downs for the company will significantly dwindle.

James Lewis, a senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Biden administration has shown no easing of the government’s strong stance against China. But the new executive order lays out much more precise criteria for weighing risks posed by TikTok and other companies owned by foreign adversaries like China.

“They are taking the same direction as the Trump administration but in some ways tougher, in a more orderly fashion and implemented in a good way,” Lewis said. He added that Biden’s order was stronger than the Trump-era directive because “it’s coherent, not random.”

Under the new system outlined in Biden’s order, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo would be empowered to “use a criteria-based decision framework and rigorous, evidence-based analysis” to examine software applications designed, manufactured or developed by a “foreign adversary,” including China, according to a memo circulated by Commerce Department officials and obtained by The New York Times.

“The Biden administration is committed to promoting an open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet,” the memo said. “Certain countries,” including China, “do not share these democratic values.”

On Wednesday, administration officials would not go into specifics about the future of TikTok’s availability to American users or say whether the U.S. government would seek to compel ByteDance, which owns the app, to transfer American user data to a company based in the United States. Amid a number of successful legal challenges waged by ByteDance, a deal to transfer the data to Oracle fell through this year shortly after Biden took office.

Administration officials said a review of TikTok by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the body that considers the national security implications of foreign investments in U.S. companies, was still continuing and separate from the order.

TikTok and Ant Group, the parent company of Alipay, which was also swept up in the Trump executive order, declined to comment. WeChat did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Christoph Hebeisen, the director of security intelligence research at the mobile security firm Lookout, noted in an interview that TikTok does not vacuum up the same amount of data from its users that an American-owned behemoth like Facebook does, but could still be used to construct a fuller picture of a person’s activities and social contacts.

“It’s not the big classified secrets that people would be after,” Hebeisen said. “It could really be that mass collection and making something out of that data for interesting information on people of interest, or even connected to people of interest.”

The order issued Wednesday was meant to broaden one issued in 2019 by the Trump administration, which banned U.S. telecommunications companies from installing foreign-made equipment that could pose a threat to national security. That order did not name specific companies, nor did the one Biden issued .

The new directive also does not mention specific retaliatory measures that could be taken if an application is found to be a threat to national security.

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