TikTok and WeChat fans can breathe easy, for now at least.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order June 9 that vacated an executive order issued in August 2020 by then President Donald Trump that was intended to shut down the apps in the U.S..
The new order vacates the executive orders that tried to shut down WeChat and TikTok as well as a third order relating to software controlled by Chinese companies.
The Trump executive order on WeChat was challenged in litigation in 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
In that case, on September 19, 2020, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler preliminarily enjoined the shutdown and, despite appeals, her order remained in effect at the time Biden took office in January of 2021.
Shortly thereafter, lawyers for the government and plaintiffs agreed to put the case on hold while the Biden administration considered what position it wished to take with respect to WeChat.
The new executive order is captioned “Executive Order on Protecting American's Sensitive Data from Foreign Adversaries” and it seeks to establish a new framework for evaluating the risks of foreign powers gaining sensitive information from and about Americans.
While the new order vacates the earlier order, it is not yet clear if that will mean the end of the government's attempt to narrow WeChat's influence in the U.S.
The order directs the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to “evaluate on a continuing basis transactions involving connected software applications that may pose an undue risk of sabotage or subversion...of information and communications technology or services in the United States.”
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is also directed to look for software that poses an unacceptable risk of causing “catastrophic effects” on the country's “critical infrastructure or digital economy" or "the national security of the United States.”
Should the secretary find a serious concern she is directed to take “appropriate action.”
In a fact sheet accompanying the new order, the Biden administration explained that it is “committed to promoting an open, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet; protecting human rights online and offline; and supporting a vibrant, global digital economy.”
However,it recognizes that certain countries, naming China explicitly, “seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans' data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests.”
The fact sheet said that the earlier orders were revoked in order to replace them with "a criteria-based decision framework and rigorous, evidence-based analysis to address the risks..."
The new order directs Raimondo to prepare a report within 120 days with recommendations about how to protect against harm from foreign actors gathering, selling, and using sensitive personal data of Americans.
In 180 days, the secretary is to prepare a report that recommends additional actions that can be taken by the president and congress to address the risks of software and technology designed or developed or controlled by foreign adversaries.
WeChat began in China as a messaging app and over the years added additional functionality including calling, video conferencing, and in-app payments. WeChat is owned by the Chinese company, Tencent Holdings Ltd., and is estimated to have more than a billion users worldwide, including 19 million in the United States.
The government said that it “plans to conduct an evaluation of the underlying record justifying those prohibitions, which will better position the Government to determine whether the national security threat described in the [order]... continue[s] to warrant the identified prohibitions.”
The new order results, at least in part, from that review.
Ernest Galvan, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, reacted to the new order stating,
“The government never should have even considered a policy to ban the WeChat platform. The government's conduct disrupted family contacts and business operations for millions of people. While it is good that the new administration has finally reversed course, it is unacceptable that the government ever strayed this far from the basic principles that govern a free society.”
Joe Dworetzky is a writer for Bay City News.