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Can Trump ban TikTok? What the executive order means – explained

Kari Paul
<span>Photograph: Adriana Adinandra/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Adriana Adinandra/REX/Shutterstock

On Thursday, Donald Trump issued two executive orders aimed at banning TikTok and WeChat, saying the US must take “aggressive action” against the China-based social media platforms in the interest of national security.

The move would effectively require TikTok and WeChat to shut down in the US or find new owners within 45 days. Trump claims the apps are a security concern because they are based in China and thus prone to data requests from the Chinese government. Microsoft is already reportedly in talks to purchase TikTok for billions.

But questions remain about what that ban would look like, and how its effects will play out. Here are the key concerns:

What exactly did Trump’s order say?

Trump’s executive order stated that apps from China “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States” and that after 45 days the US will prohibit “any transaction by any person” with ByteDance Ltd, the parent company of TikTok.

The broad language leaves a lot up to interpretation: it could simply prevent US advertisers from buying ads on the platform. But a senior administration official suggested even downloading the app would be considered a transaction, according to the Washington Post.

Can Trump really ban TikTok?

The short answer is no, said Hank Schless a security manager at Lookout.

“It would be impossible to actively delete TikTok from every device in the United States,” he said. “It would be up to Google, Apple and Microsoft, as the purveyors of the operating systems, to enforce a ban and ensure users delete TikTok.”

Those companies are not likely to comply with such an order, he said. Apple, for example, has taken a hardline approach against allowing the government or law enforcement access to its devices in the past, while Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok itself.

Even if it cannot remove the app from devices, the Trump administration can make a regulatory environment so hostile to TikTok that the business fails or recedes enough to allow an American company overtake it – a threat that seems more imminent after Facebook launched its TikTok lookalike on Monday.

Has this happened before?

TikTok was banned earlier this year in India. The app was not forcibly removed from devices, as its parent company voluntarily removed it from app stores in that country. It is unclear if the company would do so in this case (TikTok did not immediately respond to request for comment).

Removing the app from app stores can have additional negative effects, Schless said, as it creates a vacuum that cyber criminals can fill with malware that looks like TikTok but collects sensitive details from users.

Is TikTok actually dangerous?

Opinions on the security issues surrounding TikTok vary widely. The main criticisms of the app are that its parent company is based in China and thus may share user data with the Chinese government, that it collects a large amount of user data, and that the app itself is not securely coded.

Though not all experts agree on the extent that TikTok’s data practices are dangerous, this ban does little to address privacy concerns, said Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.

“This is another abuse of emergency powers under the broad guise of national security,” Shamsi said. “Selectively banning entire platforms harms freedom of speech online and does nothing to resolve the broader problem of unjustified government surveillance, including by our own government.”

The US government has extensively tracked Americans through their phone data, most famously through a program led by the National Security Agency that was exposed by the whistleblower and former employee Edward Snowden. Some analyses show TikTok does not collect significantly more data than other tech companies in the US such as Facebook.

How will people get around the ban?

Videos on TikTok explaining how to sidestep a potential ban have gained millions of likes and shares, but security experts say some of the methods promoted in those videos would likely not work.

Many claim users could use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which works by routing user traffic through a computer node in a different country, making it appear as though the person’s device is no longer based in the US. VPNs would only be effective if the ban was enforced on a device-by-device basis, rather than by having major tech companies remove the app from app stores.

“If the ban were enforced by the internet service providers themselves, then even a VPN workaround wouldn’t work for TikTok users, as connection to the app’s resources would be completely blocked,” Schless said. “This is the case we saw in India after they banned the app.”

Again, experts say it’s unlikely major tech companies will comply with such a ban. If so, users may be able to access TikTok by “jailbreaking” their phones, or modifying them so they can access resources beyond what is mandated by Apple. But doing so risks exposing themselves to additional security risks.

What other effects will this have in the long term?

Not-for-profits and free speech advocates are concerned about the impact such a ban would have on first amendment rights in the US.

“The privacy and security concerns with platforms like these are real, but we should be wary of setting a precedent that would give this president, and every future one, broad power to interfere with Americans’ access to media.” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University,

Even TikTok competitors are against a ban. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an all-hands meeting with staff on Thursday that he was “really worried” a TikTok ban would “set a really bad long-term precedent” relating to app censorship.