On Sunday, September 20, the US Department of Commerce implemented an unprecedented ban on a major Chinese social media company, WeChat.  The action followed an executive order by President Trump on August 6, based on “security concerns”, that was aimed at crippling both WeChat and TikTok, but the TikTok order was delayed until November.

While it will not be illegal for individuals to continue using WeChat in the US, it may become difficult or impossible in the days to come. 

The Department of Commerce order bans the distribution of the WeChat app to new phones and prohibits the transfer of funds through the app.  It also prohibits internet service providers from servicing the app, and so unless your ISP is based outside the US, the app may disappear altogether.  Some of the terms of the ban are rather technical, but I think a word from the underworld covers the intent of the order:  they want to kneecap WeChat. 

Anyone who knows a person who speaks Chinese has probably heard them at least mention WeChat.  It’s operated by the huge Chinese Google-like conglomerate Tencent, and is sort of like Facebook on steroids.  In addition to allowing Facebook-like interactions, it serves as a money-transfer medium, a news app, messaging app, and of course, an advertising medium.  

According to a report in the Washington Post, the Chinese Government censors it heavily, and independent investigators who tested it with 26,000 test words on accounts registered in China, Canada, and the US found nearly 200 words triggered censorship in accounts with Chinese phone numbers.  Over three million people use WeChat in the US, and the majority of them are going to have big problems trying to continue with the app after today.

Why is the US Government landing on WeChat like a piano from a third-floor window?  The official announcement is terse on this:

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US. Today‚Äôs announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the US by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”

Personally, my impression of what WeChat does is to connect Chinese speakers in the US with their friends, relatives, associates, and (possibly) fellow spies back in China.  But because the vast majority of what goes on through WeChat is probably in Chinese, it’s hard to see how the rest of the US is directly harmed by the existence of the app.

What this looks like to me is more along the lines of a diplomatic tit-for-tat on a large scale.  Every so often the US will catch some spies from another country and expel them.  It’s entirely expected that in the days to follow, the foreign country will go to the US embassy there and tell an equal number of US diplomats or diplomatic staff to pack their bags and head back to the US.

Ever since Facebook, Twitter, and company gained prominence, these US-based apps have been heavily censored or flat-out banned in China, which is one reason why there was such a big vacuum for WeChat to fill.  In going a long way toward banning WeChat in the US, the US Government is simply saying: “You want to ban our apps?  Okay, we’ll ban yours and see how you like that.” 

Such moves have their place in a carefully planned strategic pressure-building exercise that includes sanctions of other kinds.  But this administration’s actions toward China do not exactly give the impression of careful deliberation.  Nevertheless, being startling and unpredictable can itself be an effective strategy, and it’s possible that WeChat and even the Chinese Communist Party itself was caught off guard.

The broader picture of US-China relations, while not explicitly a matter of engineering ethics, deserves mention at this point.  While allowing economic freedom to a great extent, the Chinese Government continues to repress political freedom and systematically persecutes certain groups such as the Falun Gong religious organization and the ethnic group termed Uighurs.  These are deplorable actions that deserve censure, and if the WeChat ban is a sort of punishment for these things, it is well deserved. 

On the other hand, one has to ask how effective it will be.  Something else not called WeChat but doing everything WeChat does is probably in development at this instant, and the Department of Commerce order hinted that they might take care of that too, if WeChat shows up under another name.  

What this action has started is a social-media-ban war that will be marked by a ban followed by an evasive move, then followed by another ban, and so on.  The WeChat users, most of whom probably do nothing more sinister than checking on Aunt Hong in Wuhan every now and then, are caught in the middle, and will have to struggle along as best they can with old-fashioned phone calls or whatever ingenious programmers and companies can come up with to evade the ban. 

And there is always the possibility that, as the clock runs down to Election Day, this anti-China move will turn out to be just a political plum offered to supporters of the President, rather than a calculated diplomatic move in a well-crafted chess game.  I don’t know how many Chinese-American citizens voted for President Trump in 2016, but this action probably has not endeared him to them. 

Historically, one reason the World Wide Web has appealed philosophically to certain tendencies of mind is that it does not recognise borders.  For people whose ideal world would be a borderless global block party under a single benevolent government, that has been one of the strengths of the internet-mediated thing that lets people chat with others halfway around the world as though they were in the same room.  

But the Department of Commerce move is an attempt to impose borders on what began as a borderless cyberworld.  Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a political stunt that will soon be forgotten is something we can’t tell yet.  All we can be sure of is that US users of WeChat are going to have a hard time continuing to use it, and we’ll just have to wait to see what the wider effects are, if any.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Engineering Ethics Blog on September 21.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...