President Donald Trump issued an executive order Thursday barring U.S. companies from doing business with the Chinese company ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.
The order, which is set to go into effect in 45 days, would be a major blow to the popular short-form video app if it is not sold to a U.S. company. Microsoft has been in talks to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations and said last week that it would complete those discussions by Sept. 15.
The order says the risks posed by the platform are “real” and constitute a “national emergency.” The app has reportedly been downloaded 175 million times, capturing “vast swaths” of information that “threatens to allow” Chinese government officials to track Americans, according to the order.
After 45 days, the order says, the U.S. Commerce Department will be charged with identifying unspecified “transactions” that violate the ban.
A spokesperson for Microsoft on Thursday night said the company had no comment on the president’s executive order.
Trump on Thursday also issued a similar executive order targeting Tencent, one of the largest Chinese tech companies. While most of Tencent’s business is in China, where it operates the popular WeChat app, it has numerous U.S. investments including ownership of Riot Games, which makes the popular “League of Legends” online game.
Cybersecurity experts have warned that China’s laws allow its government to put pressure on tech companies like ByteDance to provide access to user data. But experts have also noted that there is no evidence thus far of the company providing the Chinese government with data and pointed out that many other companies track their users.
“While TikTok is being singled out in this executive order, their data collection and sharing practices are fairly standard in the industry,” said Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
“I would imagine every teenager will still access TikTok through the VPN they use to access other content. The coronavirus is a national emergency. TikTok is not a national emergency,” she said.
TikTok’s meteoric rise in recent years coincided with increasing tension between the U.S. and China over the growing influence of both countries’ technology companies. TikTok was first mentioned as a national security threat in November when the U.S. government opened a review of the app.
More recently, the White House began targeting TikTok, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying in July that the U.S. was “looking at” banning the app. Trump has since threatened numerous times to ban the app.
Thursday’s orders were not the first to target Chinese technology companies. In May 2019, Trump issued a similar order on another major Chinese tech company, Huawei, that makes telecommunications equipment including 5G wireless infrastructure.
TikTok has maintained that it operates without influence from the Chinese government and that it stores the U.S. user data in the U.S. and in Singapore.
Ezra Kaplan contributed.