|It is still not clear how matters will play out with a proposed Oracle/TikTok deal and the ban on WeChat (and possibly TikTok if an acceptable deal cannot be made.)|
Today, the Trump Administration issued orders barring TikTok and WeChat pursuant to executive orders issued an “Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok” and an “Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat” that bar any transactions with the companies that made, distribute, and operate TikTok and WeChat respectively, the former being much more popular in the United States (U.S.) than the latter. Working in the background is a potential deal between United States’ (U.S.) company Oracle and ByteDance that may address U.S. concerns about TikTok. On this front, there have been multiple stories from the Trump Administration about the positions of stakeholders on whether Oracle’s proposed role as a “trusted technology partner” will satisfy the national security concerns articulated in the executive order banning the app and the order from the United States government to ByteDance to divest a key part of their platform. Moreover, there is growing pressure from Republicans in Congress to reject the Oracle/TikTok arrangement as it stands.
In his public remarks this week, President Donald Trump seemed underwhelmed about the proposed Oracle/TikTok deal. He said that “[c]onceptually, I can tell you I don’t like [ByteDance maintaining a stake].” Trump stated “[i]f that’s the case, I’m not going to be happy with that.” He added any acceptable deal “has to be 100 percent as far as national security is concerned, and no, I’m not prepared to sign off on anything…[and] I have to see the deal.” On the other hand, Secretary of the Treasury and chair of Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) Steven Mnuchin seemed to be taking a different view. He stated “I will just say from our standpoint, we’ll need to make sure that the code is, one, secure, Americans’ data is secure, that the phones are secure and we’ll be looking to have discussions with Oracle over the next few days with our technical teams.” And to this end, the New York Times is reporting that ByteDance has accepted some unspecified changes to the deal in order to address national security concerns, and Reuters is claiming ByteDance has agreed to an initial public offering within a year.
As noted, the U.S. Department of Commerce (Commerce) issued orders effectuating the executive orders, which are set to take effect this weekend. In a press release, Commerce explained:
As of September 20, 2020, the following transactions are prohibited:
- Any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok mobile applications, constituent code, or application updates through an online mobile application store in the U.S.;
- Any provision of services through the WeChat mobile application for the purpose of transferring funds or processing payments within the U.S.
As of September 20, 2020, for WeChat and as of November 12, 2020, for TikTok, the following transactions are prohibited:
- Any provision of internet hosting services enabling the functioning or optimization of the mobile application in the U.S.;
- Any provision of content delivery network services enabling the functioning or optimization of the mobile application in the U.S.;
- Any provision directly contracted or arranged internet transit or peering services enabling the function or optimization of the mobile application within the U.S.;
- Any utilization of the mobile application’s constituent code, functions, or services in the functioning of software or services developed and/or accessible within the U.S.
Any other prohibitive transaction relating to WeChat or TikTok may be identified at a future date. Should the U.S. Government determine that WeChat’s or TikTok’s illicit behavior is being replicated by another app somehow outside the scope of these executive orders, the President has the authority to consider whether additional orders may be appropriate to address such activities. The President has provided until November 12 for the national security concerns posed by TikTok to be resolved. If they are, the prohibitions in this order may be lifted.
Commerce has submitted notices to be published next week in the Federal Register identifying the transactions that will be illegal regarding TikTok and WeChat:
- Pursuant to Executive Order 13942, the Secretary of Commerce is publishing the list of prohibited transactions by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with ByteDance Ltd. (a.k.a. Zìjié Tiàodòng), Beijing, China, or its subsidiaries, including TikTok Inc., in which any such company has any interest, to address the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873, May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain), and particularly to address the threat identified in Executive Order 13942 posed by mobile application TikTok.
- Pursuant to Executive Order 13943, the Secretary of Commerce is publishing this Identification of Prohibited Transactions related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with Tencent Holdings Ltd. (a.k.a. Téngxùn Kònggŭ Yŏuxiàn Gōngsī), Shenzhen, China, or any subsidiary of that entity, to address the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873, May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain), and particularly to address the threat identified in Executive Order 13943 posed by mobile application WeChat.
While the TikTok order could be rescinded if a deal with Oracle is approved by the U.S. government, it seems unlikely that the WeChat order will be undone, at least in the short term. Moreover, these orders will undoubtedly be challenged further in court. Last month, TikTok filed suit in United States federal court in Northern California, asking for an injunction to stop enforcement of the EO and a declaration that it is illegal. It is possible the company, along with Tencent, WeChat’s parent, ask a federal court to stop the Trump Administration from proceeding.
Moreover, there are questions about enforcement, for the Administration cannot reasonably expect people in the U.S. to stop using and delete TikTok and WeChat. There may also be a case to be made on First Amendment grounds that the orders violate rights of free speech and association.
As mentioned, a number of Republicans have come out against the Oracle/TikTok deal. At the beginning of the week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) wrote Mnuchin “calling on CFIUS to reject Oracle’s proposed partnership with ByteDance to obtain control of TikTok’s U.S. operations…[because]…the proposed partnership allows for continued Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control of TikTok, putting American data at risk and violating President Trump’s executive order.” Hawley added:
CFIUS should promptly reject any Oracle-ByteDance collaboration and send the ball back to ByteDance’s court so that the company can come up with a more acceptable solution. ByteDance can still pursue a full sale of TikTok, its code, and its algorithm to a U.S. company, so that the app can be rebuilt from the ground up to remove any trace of CCP influence.
Acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Thom Tillis (R-NC), Rick Scott (R-FL), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to the President “outlining significant concerns regarding reports that Oracle Corp. confirmed a deal with ByteDance to become a “trusted technology provider” for TikTok’s U.S. operations, including that the “arrangement could violate the requirements set about in the August 6, 2020 Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok and would do little to satisfy the range of concerns expressed in that order.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) also wrote Mnuchin arguing:
The Chinese Communist Party and its expansionist actions represent a threat the United States, its interests, and its allies. This Administration has correctly recognized this threat and has taken substantial counter-measures in response to protect our national security. I urge you to do the same when reviewing the newly submitted plan of a transaction between the Chinese company ByteDance and Oracle.
So far, Democrats in Congress, and the Biden campaign, have remained silent, apparently willing to let Republicans criticize the proposed deal from the right. The White House may ultimately prove susceptible to criticism and seek a modified deal to allay these concerns. However, these Republican Senators seem to be laying out a case for a much more dramatic transaction, but one that would likely run afoul of new regulations issued by the People’s Republic of China on export controls. Late last month, two PRC agencies changed the PRC’s export control rules for the first time since 2008 to likely have leverage over TikTok’s sale to a U.S. entity. Ostensibly, the changes are “to regulate technology exports, promote scientific and technological progress and economic and technological cooperation, and maintain national economic security,” but the inclusion of “personalised information recommendation service technology based on data analysis” and “artificial intelligence interactive interfaces” likely point to ByteDance’s app, TikTok. In fact, a researcher with the PRC Ministry of Commerce was quoted as asserting “[t]he time to publish the new update of the export control list has been expedited due to the TikTok sale.”
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