US government threatens further app bans after TikTok but experts say crackdown could be illegal

Chinese apps could be removed from the iPhone and Android app stores in the US

Adam Smith
Thursday 06 August 2020 11:21 BST
Trump says US owed 'substantial' money for TikTok acquisition deal

Following the potential ban, or sale, of TikTok, the Trump administration has said it is also going to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from the iOS and Android app stores in the US.

However, experts have said such a move may in fact be illegal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already targeted messaging platform WeChat for its perceived relationship to the Chinese government and gave details about what the Trump government is now calling the “Clean Network” program.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) content censorship,” Pompeo said.

Companies that will be affected by the policy include Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent – some of China’s largest technology companies – as well as Huawei, which recently became the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer.

Pompeo said the United States was working to prevent Huawei pre-installing or making available for download the most popular US apps on its phones.

In 2019, the US government forbid Google from providing its commercial services – including Maps, YouTube, and the Play Store for Huawei phones.

Sources have said that other companies, including Facebook, have restricted their services on Huawei’s platforms for similar reasons regarding the US government’s approach to China.

“We don't want companies to be complicit in Huawei's human rights abuses, or the CCP's surveillance apparatus,” Pompeo said, without mentioning any specific American companies.

He said the State Department was also working to ensure China could not compromise information carried by undersea cables that connect the United States to the global internet.

Outside experts called Pompeo's proposal vague and possibly illegal.

“It's a PR stunt. No specifics. It's an objective,” George Washington University professor Susan Ariel Aaronson said by email.

Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said the government is trying to push its allies and companies to stop using Chinese gear and software “at all levels of their communications networks, from the internet backbone to app stores.”

That includes calling for companies to yank their apps from Huawei's app store, which advertises that it contains apps from European and U.S. companies like travel service Booking and Amazon.

The legal authority for the administration to act against apps and app stores is unclear, Triolo write in a research note.

The State Department did not immediately a question seeking information about the legal authority the administration could use to justify such measures.

The initiative is meant to force countries and companies to choose sides between the U.S. and China, Triolo said. He expects many companies and governments to resist.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the United States “has no right” to set up the “Clean Network” and calls the actions by Washington as “a textbook case of bullying”.

“Anyone can see through clearly that the intention of the U.S. is to protect its monopoly position in technology and to rob other countries of their proper right to development,” said Wang.

President Trump has said that TikTok must be sold to a US company – most likely Microsoft – in order to separate it from its Chinese parent company Bytedance. Mr Trump also said that the US Treasury would take a cut of the deal, comparing the relationship to that between a landlord and a tenant.

TikTok’s founder has said that the Trump administration’s real aim is not one based on of national security, but rather than it wants a “ban or even more” on Chinese services due to negative US-China relations.

Additional reporting from agencies

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