The Trump administration’s decision to ban TikTok and WeChat could set a dangerous precedent that adversely affects U.S. tech companies and accelerates the balkanization of the internet, tech executives, public policy officials and other experts warn.
The bans, which would effectively eliminate WeChat’s presence in the U.S. at midnight on Sunday and do the same to TikTok after Nov. 12, mark a rare instance in which the executive branch is dictating what messaging and social media apps are available to American consumers.
The bans, announced by the Department of Commerce on Friday, come after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in August that started the U.S. on a path of forcing companies to stop doing business with WeChat and TikTok. Trump and the Department of Commerce have said the apps are national security threats.
In the short term, the bans could benefit TikTok competitors like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, but in the long-term they could embolden other countries to implement similar bans on those companies, experts say.
“I do believe anytime a nation-state renders judgment on which applications can or cannot run ‘in country’ … then it provides ‘air cover’ for countries to impose what I would describe as ‘nontariff’ trade barriers,” Aneesh Chopra, who served as the first chief technology officer of the United States under President Barack Obama, said in an email.
The WeChat ban is unlikely to be overturned. TikTok’s ultimate fate is yet to be determined. Trump said at a news conference Friday that the White House could still approve a deal.
“I think it could go quickly,” he said, while noting that the U.S. would still need assurances of “total security” from China. “Could go very quickly. Could go very, very fast.”
Still, U.S. tech executives are already sounding the alarm.
“If you play it out, there’s a real risk more and more countries start to demand concessions or ban apps that we and other U.S. companies build,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said.
“Over the next five to 10 years, [that] seems much worse than any benefit we get from weakening one competitor now,” Mosseri said. “Remember, most of our users, and even more of our potential growth, are outside the United States.”
Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and chairman of Google, has long said that the internet was splitting into two: a U.S. internet and a Chinese internet.
Last month, in an interview with CNBC, Schmidt warned that Trump’s move to ban TikTok’s U.S. business could set a precedent for other countries to take similar actions against U.S. tech firms.
“What I worry about is the U.S. taking a data sovereignty position, which … sets the precedent that this will now be done against American firms that have global presence,” he said. “It seems appealing, but then it sets in motion a whole bunch of things that can affect American dominance.”
TikTok shares these concerns and has called on other tech leaders to join its fight against the impending ban.
“We agree that this type of ban would be bad for the industry,” Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s interim global chief, tweeted after Mosseri voiced his concerns on Twitter. “We invite Facebook and Instagram to publicly join our challenge and support our litigation. This is a moment to put aside our competition and focus on core principles like freedom of expression and due process of law.”
Due process, or the lack thereof, is a key concern for many tech executives and policy experts.
“The executive branch deciding what is allowed to be on the phones of Americans, with no judicial process or detailed guidelines that companies could follow to be in compliance, is a huge strike against the freedoms of US citizens and the open internet,” tweeted Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former chief security officer for Facebook.
“We are in a long-term economic and ideological struggle with the People’s Republic of China, but we will not win that struggle by building the Great Firewall of the United States,” he added. “The Administration’s actions are tacitly supporting the Chinese approach to internet governance.”