(Reuters) – President Donald Trump has threatened to ban the TikTok application for short video messaging and the WeChat messaging service in late September, as Chinese-owned applications pose a threat to national security. It would mark the first time the United States attempted to shut down widely used mobile internet applications.
How would the United States block access to TikTok and WeChat?
The administration could order smartphone software giants Apple Inc. and Google Alphabet Inc. to remove WeChat and TikTok from their app stores.
When the Indian government banned 59 Chinese apps in June, including TikTok and WeChat, it asked Google and Apple to remove the apps from their app stores, two sources told Reuters. Both companies complied.
It would be a rare and possibly unprecedented step for the United States: Apple has not disclosed any request to withdraw applications from the U.S. government since it began publishing information about these requests in the second half of 2018.
The government was also able to order applications to stop offering access to U.S. users by threatening them with legal repercussions. In India, some banned apps were removed from app stores.
If I already have TikTok and WeChat on my phone, will I be able to use them?
Applications would probably work, but government orders can block updates, block access to new features, and bug fixes.
Jay Kaplan, CEO of cybersecurity firm Synack and a former National Security Agency cybersecurity analyst, said it’s “very likely” that Apple and Google could remotely disable installed apps, though that the experts knew of no case in which they had done so recently. Apple and Google declined to comment.
Could users download apps elsewhere?
Users with phones using Google Android can install alternative apps in the official Google app store. Theoretically, they could download WeChat or TikTok from company websites.
It’s harder to use alternatives in Apple’s App Store to install apps, though it’s not impossible. Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, who has done extensive technical analysis and censorship of WeChat, said that using unofficial stores carries the risk of installing versions of popular applications altered by viruses or scams.
Could US users access web versions of the app?
Angelique Medina, director of product marketing for network intelligence firm ThousandEyes, said it was banned from doing business with applications aimed at Amazon.com Inc., AWS and content delivery providers such as Akamai Technologies Inc. Accommodation outside the United States could still serve Americans, but probably at slower speeds.
Could Internet service providers prevent users from accessing these services?
The government could order interest exchange providers to prevent users from accessing WeChat and TikTok servers, just as China does to enforce its big firewall. But it wouldn’t be an easy task for the U.S. government because the U.S. has thousands more suppliers than China, said Chester Wisniewski, a researcher at cybersecurity provider Sophos. According to legal experts, an order could be challenged by ISPs in the United States.
In India, the government ordered telecom companies and other internet providers to block apps of Chinese origin, according to warnings posted by Reuters. Experts say there are no known cases in the United States ordering ISPs to ban access to sites.
What about VPNs?
Americans could use virtual private networks or VPNs to bypass ISP blocks and surf the Internet as if they were abroad. This is how internet users in China are able to get services, such as Facebook, banned by the Great Firewall. Network experts said the same gap would exist in the United States.
(Reporting by Jane Lanhee Lee, Stephen Nellis, Paresh Dave, Sankalp Phartiyal, Aditya Y. Kalra; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Dan Grebler)