WASHINGTON—President Biden revoked executive orders targeting the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps initiated by former President Donald Trump and signed a new order requiring security reviews of these and other apps in the jurisdiction of foreign adversaries.
The order Wednesday doesn’t target any companies specifically. Instead, it directs the Commerce Department to evaluate all software applications with potential ties to foreign adversaries including China and take action to protect data on U.S. citizens gathered by the apps.
The new executive order is designed to replace the Trump administration’s approach targeting individual companies with a broader process for reviewing risks posed by apps that are connected to potentially hostile countries, according to senior Biden administration officials.
The officials say they remain concerned about security risks from Chinese and certain other foreign-owned apps but that the executive orders signed by Mr. Trump were effectively unenforceable.
Federal court rulings had blocked the orders from taking effect. In the case of TikTok, Mr. Trump had sought to shut down the app in the U.S. if the company wasn’t put under control of U.S. owners.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) framed the White House action as a retreat, however, tweeting Wednesday: “This is a major mistake – shows alarming complacency regarding #China’s access to Americans’ personal information, as well as #China’s growing corporate influence.”
TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., declined to comment. The popular video-sharing app has an estimated 100 million users in the U.S. Representatives of WeChat, a multipurpose app popular in China and owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings Ltd., didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under Wednesday’s order, the Commerce Department will be required to review apps developed or owned by people or companies “subject to the jurisdiction of a foreign adversary, including the People’s Republic of China,” according to a White House fact sheet.
This includes apps that could be used to support military or intelligence activities by other countries, or could be used to collect sensitive personal data, the White House said.
U.S. officials have maintained that TikTok, WeChat and other Chinese-owned apps collect data that could be shared with China’s authoritarian government. Those companies have disputed those contentions.
The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Biden administration had shelved the Trump administration’s plan to force a sale of TikTok amid legal challenges.
At the time, the Biden administration said it was developing a comprehensive approach to protecting data security and was reviewing the previous administration’s action to determine whether the national-security threat cited by Mr. Trump continued to warrant an outright ban.
Administration officials said Wednesday that TikTok continues to undergo a separate review by a government panel that reviews cross-border transactions.
The action is the latest sign of the Biden administration’s emerging China policy, which represents a tougher approach acknowledging Beijing’s economic and geopolitical strength.
In March, the U.S. joined allies in imposing sanctions against Chinese officials engaged in the mass incarceration of mainly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Last week, the president expanded a Trump-era prohibition on Americans investing in Chinese companies with purported links to China’s military. Many of the newly targeted companies are subsidiaries and affiliates of major state-owned companies and other businesses named on the earlier blacklist.
The U.S. also is working on supply-chain issues intended to lessen the dependence on China. On Tuesday the Senate approved a $250 billion bill boosting government spending on technology research and development amid rising competition from China and other nations.
Mr. Biden departed Wednesday for his first overseas trip as president and will meet with European and NATO leaders as well as hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Part of his aim, officials said, will be to rally allies into taking on Beijing.
The executive order authorizes the Commerce Department to begin vetting foreign apps immediately.
The new order also seeks recommendations on further toughening of the U.S. approach to protect sensitive data such as genetic information.
The original Trump administration order affecting TikTok and its owner ByteDance prohibited “any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with ByteDance Ltd.”
But the Biden administration approach still faces challenges in addressing the complex problems raised by the global internet.
Notably, the Biden administration plans to seek more involvement of other friendly countries in its efforts to police data practices of apps based in potentially unfriendly countries.
More WSJ coverage of Trump’s TikTok ban, selected by the editors.
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