The Biden administration passed an executive order on Wednesday that seeks to create a “criteria-based” framework for establishing whether foreign-owned apps present national security risks or not. In so doing, the regulation overturns three executive orders previously signed by former President Trump that took a decidedly more aggressive approach to the issue.
Trump’s orders targeted dozens of Chinese companies—including TikTok and WeChat—often cutting them off from U.S. investment, on the grounds that they were potential vectors for foreign espionage. Trump’s TikTok order went so far as to ban distribution of the app within the U.S. on the grounds that the company left user data “vulnerable to CCP [Chinese Communist Party] access for nefarious purpose.” Multiple federal judges subsequently shot down the order—with some calling it “hypothetical” as well as “arbitrary and capricious.”
Biden’s new regulation seeks to pursue a more sober approach—arguing that the U.S. Government should “evaluate these threats through rigorous, evidence-based analysis” as a way of addressing “any unacceptable or undue risks consistent with overall national security, foreign policy, and economic objectives.”
In addition to overturning Trump’s bans, the order gives the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and a host of other business- and intelligence-related agency heads approximately four months to compile a report with recommendations about how best to protect against “United States persons’ sensitive data” being compromised “by persons owned or controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of, a foreign adversary.” After its completion, the report will be sent to the President’s advisors so that the White House can make a more informed decision about how to proceed with further regulation.
This is very much in line with Biden’s style: whatever Trump did brashly and impulsively—probably after a 20-minute conversation with his national security advisors—Biden wants to address via committees and official agencies, thus turning decision-making back over to the natural flow of bureaucracy instead of ruling by hip-shooting, ill-informed fiat.
It doesn’t ultimately mean that Biden’s government will end up in a drastically different place. If anything, Biden has signaled more consistency than change when it comes to foreign policy precedents set by the previous administration—particularly when it comes to China. This is doubtlessly because the consensus in the U.S. national security community remains that China is our biggest geopolitical foe (just look at that giant anti-China, Big Tech pork barrel that just passed the Senate, for instance).
Indeed, as Biden officials told the Wall Street Journal this week, they “remain concerned about security risks from Chinese and certain other foreign-owned apps.” Relevantly, Biden just followed in Trump’s footsteps by categorically banning U.S. investment in 59 different Chinese companies, including Huawei, in an effort to combat the threat “posed by the military-industrial complex of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”