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U.S. to start blocking TikTok and WeChat downloads Sunday

The app will still work for at least a few more weeks. Commerce said that crucial services that TikTok relies on, such as internet hosting and transit services, will not be prohibited until Nov. 12.
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The U.S. will begin blocking the distribution of the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat on Sunday, the Department of Commerce said Friday.

Commerce said in a news release that U.S. mobile platforms will be prohibited from distributing the apps, meaning new downloads will be blocked.

But TikTok will not disappear entirely on Sunday. The app will still work for at least a few more weeks. Commerce said that crucial services that TikTok relies on, such as internet hosting and transit services, will not be prohibited until Nov. 12 — pushing the deadline to after the election.

WeChat, however, faces the full ban on Sunday, which could render the app almost useless.

The statement gives TikTok a reprieve as it continues to negotiate a deal in hopes of staving off the full ban.

"The real shut down would come after Nov. 12 in the event that there is not another transaction," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an interview on the Fox Business Network. "So it’s very different how the two are being handled and that reflects the quantitative and the qualitative differences between the two apps."

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Apple declined to comment.

A TikTok spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the company is "disappointed" with the decision.

"We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the U.S. of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods," the company said.

On Twitter, Vanessa Pappas, interim global chief of TikTok, responded to Instagram head Adam Mosseri, who tweeted that a ban on TikTok would be bad for "Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly."

"We agree that this type of ban would be bad for the industry," Pappas tweeted. "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."

The apps were the subject of an executive order from President Donald Trump in early August in which Trump said the apps posed a threat to national security.

The new deadline adds more tension to the negotiations currently happening between TikTok's parent company ByteDance and U.S. technology company Oracle. The two companies have been in talks about a deal to mollify the president's concerns.

On Thursday, the two companies reached an agreement on a deal that would stop short of Trump's demand that TikTok be sold to a U.S. company. Instead, TikTok would become a global company based in the U.S., with Oracle taking responsibility for TikTok's U.S. operations and its handling of user data, according to two people familiar with the arrangement who were not authorized to speak publicly.

That deal still needs the approval of Trump and Chinese authorities.

Trump said at a news conference Friday that the White House could still approve a deal that would turn TikTok into a U.S.-based company while entrusting Oracle with oversight of U.S. user data.

“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."

Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TikTok has amassed about 100 million monthly U.S. users, making it one of the only rivals to social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. The app provides an easy way for people to record short snippets of video and put music or sounds to them. The app's popularity, particularly among younger Americans, has already spurred its own generation of celebrities.

But its ownership by a Chinese tech company has been a point of contention among U.S. politicians who have expressed concern that China's government could demand the user data of millions of Americans. That data could then be used for espionage purposes, but security experts have warned that data security is a problem that goes well beyond TikTok or apps that are owned by Chinese companies.

While TikTok has a higher profile in the U.S., WeChat is widely used by Chinese Americans. The app is primarily a messaging service but includes a wide variety of functions including a payment system and social media. In China, WeChat is almost necessary for daily life, where it can be used for everything from paying for taxis to playing video games.

Tencent, the Chinese company that owns WeChat, said in a statement that it is reviewing Friday's announcement and still hopes to find a way to operate in the U.S.

"The restrictions announced today are unfortunate, but given our desire to provide ongoing services to our users in the U.S. — for whom WeChat is an important communication tool — we will continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the U.S. ways to achieve a long-term solution," the company said.

If it goes into effect, the Commerce edict would also mean TikTok will be unable to update its apps for American users, preventing the company from fixing any newly discovered security flaws or bugs.

That could create more insecurity, according to Whitney Merrill, a former lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission.

“A ban like this sets a very dangerous precedent. Any ban preventing further updates to that app, will ultimately harm users in unintended ways," she said. "The developers will be unable to patch security vulnerabilities, leaving an insecure piece of software on many people's phones."

"This runs counter to concerns about security and data collection since it's not really addressing either in a thoughtful, reasoned way," she added.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think tank funded by tech companies and some government agencies, offered a similar assessment.

"The Trump Administration has provided no evidence that a ban on WeChat and TikTok is necessary to address a national security threat," Castro said in an emailed statement. "Instead, the actions announced today put consumers at risk by cutting them off from software updates, including necessary security updates."