Q&A: What does banning TikTok and WeChat mean for users?

Cover Image
Photo credit FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 file photo, Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing. The U.S. government is cracking down on the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, starting by barring them from app stores on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

The U.S. government is cracking down on the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, starting by barring them from app stores on Sunday.

President Donald Trump has cited concerns about Chinese government snooping as his administration prepares to follow through on executive orders that could make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to use the apps.

Trump has also floated a potential way out, at least for TikTok, which on Friday he called an “amazing company” that is “very, very popular.”

Here are some questions and answers about the deal.

WHEN DO THE BANS TAKE EFFECT?

The order disallowing TikTok and WeChat from smartphone app stores takes effect Sunday, as do additional restrictions on the use of WeChat.

A broader ban on the use of TikTok will follow on Nov. 12 unless its Chinese parent company ByteDance is able to persuade U.S. officials that it can resolve national security concerns. On Saturday, Trump said he has approved “in concept” a deal that would see the popular video-sharing app partner with Oracle and Walmart to become a U.S. company. Trump said the new company “will have nothing to do with China.” But the deal still needs to be finalized.

WHAT ARE TIKTOK AND WECHAT?

TikTok is a smartphone app for making and watching short videos that's popular with teens and young adults, with typical posts centered around lip syncing, dancing or making people laugh. TikTok says it has 100 million U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally. It has its own influencer culture, enabling people to make a living by posting videos on the service, and hosts ads from major U.S. companies.

WeChat is a messaging-focused app that in the U.S. serves as a lifeline to friends, family, customers and business contacts in China. Its owner, Chinese tech giant Tencent, says it has more than a billion users, mostly in China, where it's an all-purpose app used for everything from texting to social media, cab-hailing and payments.

WHAT DOES THE BAN MEAN FOR USERS?

For WeChat users, the order won't prohibit individual users from sending texts or making payments. But it could throw a wrench into WeChat's operations and make it hard for the app to keeping running in the U.S. by blocking critical technical services provided by other companies.

For TikTok users who've already downloaded the app, it should still work normally for now. Users, however, might be blocked from getting important app software updates that fix bugs and security vulnerabilities. Further restrictions echoing those targeting WeChat are set for Nov. 12.

ARE THERE WORKAROUNDS?

Maybe, though none are very good. It's possible to bypass the TikTok app to view the service on a web home screen, but users wouldn't be able to make videos — which could eventually mean fewer new American-made videos to watch.

App users can try to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to disguise their location and pretend they're in another country. But that raises additional security concerns, especially for users who go with a free or cheap VPN provider they haven't carefully vetted.

Users can also use tricks to sidestep the Apple and Android app store process, but these also pose security risks.

“If there's a software update, well, WeChat might stop working,” said Nicholas Weaver, a computer science lecturer at UC Berkeley. “If you don’t update your phone, it's a security risk. It puts users in an impossible position.”