WeChat, which is the subject of a similar order, has even less of an escape route. Its owner, China-based Tencent, has seemingly no option of selling the app, which is largely used by the Chinese diaspora in America and elsewhere. So a complete ban seems likely.
Trump’s two orders appeared hastily written, creating confusion as to their scope. But a strict reading of them presents some far-reaching consequences.
Microsoft is only in discussions to buy TikTok’s business in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, but Trump’s order could force Apple and Google to remove the app from phone download stores everywhere, including the UK and Europe. The order could potentially affect Tencent’s other operations in the US. where it owns a host of popular smartphone games. And American companies could be forced to cease doing business with WeChat in China, where the app is a massive shopping portal. The most severe consequence would be Apple being forced to remove WeChat from its App Store in China, something that would cripple the company’s sales there, given how dominant WeChat is in the country. This prospect knocked Apple’s share price after Trump’s order.
It remains unclear how the orders will be applied. But even on a narrow reading that results in TikTok and WeChat simply being banned in the US, the move should worry Silicon Valley. America’s tech giants have been among the biggest winners from globalisation over the last two decades. Outside China, they are dominant in almost every country and language, and have profited greatly from the theory that the internet is borderless.
But inside China, we see what happens when the idea of the global internet is rejected. Facebook, Google and Amazon have little to no presence, and Apple must make increasingly uncomfortable compromises to operate there.
Therefore, what Silicon Valley has always feared is China’s model of protectionism and censorship being exported around the world. The top companies have fallen over themselves to set up in India, which has displayed a much more authoritarian streak regarding the internet in recent months.
Until recently, they have largely been able to point to the American model, in which the internet has largely been untouched, as something to emulate. Trump’s actions against TikTok and WeChat – whatever the merit of the motivations behind them – mean that is no longer the case.
Governments of all stripes now may feel justified in taking a stronger line on the tech giants. Last week, users on Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok in China, joked that Apple should be forced to sell its Chinese operations to a local company. That is unlikely, but countries will feel more justified in squeezing other concessions: applying targeted “tech taxes”, introducing stricter censorship laws, or stronger regulations.
None of this would be welcome in Silicon Valley, which is why Zuckerberg, despite being an apparent victor, told his staff last week that banning TikTok would set “a really bad long-term precedent”.
If American tech companies are worried about their own government acting like this, they should also be troubled by Microsoft’s behaviour in playing along. Last week, the company’s statement confirming its interest in TikTok included some extraordinary statements, including saying that it “fully appreciates the importance of addressing the president’s concerns”, and that it “appreciates the US government’s and president Trump’s personal involvement”. One commentator likened it to “something a Chinese company might write under the Chinese government.”
This may have done Microsoft some favours with the White House, but it will not have won the company any credit among its fellow tech giants. If Chinese-style tech protectionism is coming to the US, its companies have little to win in the long term by playing along.