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Trump TikTok, WeChat ban echoes other countries, including China

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Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook

Source: Reuters; Apple

President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Thursday ordering U.S. firms to stop doing business with popular Chinese apps TikTok, owned by ByteDance, and WeChat, owned by Tencent. 

This comes after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier in the week that he was calling on American app stores — which are dominated by Apple and Google — to remove “untrusted” Chinese apps.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat, and others, are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP content and censorship,” Pompeo said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

It’s unclear how the companies plan to implement the Trump administration’s executive order, which becomes effective on Sept. 20, or the State Department program. Representatives for Apple and Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But both companies have removed plenty of apps in response to foreign government requests. It may be unprecedented for the U.S. to ban apps on a national level, but other governments do it all the time.

Between July 2018 and June 2019, Apple removed 851 apps from its platforms in certain regions after legal requests from countries including China, Russia, Norway, and Saudi Arabia. When India banned TikTok and WeChat among other Chinese apps in June, the apps were removed from both the App Store and Play Store in that country within hours. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed app removals in China in 2017 by saying: “We would rather not remove apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever do we business.”

If the apps were to be removed from the U.S. stores, the vast majority of Americans would not be able to download TikTok, which was the No. 2 free app on Apple’s platform on Friday, nor WeChat, which is used by Chinese-Americans to stay in touch with family or friends with over 1 billion users worldwide. 

China leads in App Store takedown requests

Although a wide variety of countries make requests, the leader by far in Apple’s stats is China, the target of Trump’s executive order.

According to Apple, China accounted for nearly three quarters of the takedown requests between July 2018 and June 2019, and 85% of the apps removed from Apple’s App Store during that time period. The “vast majority” relate to pornography, gambling, and illegal content, Apple says. Google’s Play Store is not available in China.

Activists in China have long pointed to Apple’s App Store as a choke point that prevents Chinese residents from accessing news or privacy apps from outside the country. 

GreatFire, a nonprofit studying China’s national firewall, launched a site called Applecensorship.com in 2019 that tracks App Store removals in various markets, tallying its own numbers about app takedowns and removals that focuses on total removals, not just removals with official government requests. 

In a letter to Congress last month, the group said that Apple uses its “walled garden operating ecosystem” to censor the App Store in China and around the world at the government’s behest. 

In total, in the year-long period covered by Apple’s transparency reports, 15 different countries requested a total of 1,311 apps to be removed in 150 separate requests over “legal violations,” or alleging that the apps broke the law inside the country. Apple challenged all or part of 12 requests, and ultimately removed 851 apps from various country storefronts. 97 other apps were removed in the first half of 2019 when governments informed Apple that the apps broke Apple’s own store guidelines. 

Apple doesn’t specify which apps were removed, but does provide limited detail about why the governments requested the takedowns. In most circumstances, they are related to illegal gambling or content, or violating privacy laws, according to Apple. In 2019, the U.A.E. requested Apple take down 275 apps for “operating outside of government policies.” Apple challenged the request, and didn’t take any apps down. 

Apple’s stats currently cover July 2018 through June 2019, so it does not include this summer’s India takedowns.

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Difference between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs as leaders

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Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has had the opportunity to meet and work alongside major tech giants, including late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. In an interview with Bloomberg, Gates was asked whether his contemporary Elon Musk could be considered the “next Steve Jobs,” due to the advancements his companies Tesla and SpaceX have made in electric cars and reusable rockets, respectively. 

“If you know people personally, that kind of gross oversimplification seems strange,” Gates told Bloomberg in the interview published Thursday.

There are some key differences between the way Musk and Jobs operate, Gates said.

“Elon’s more of a hands-on engineer. Steve was a genius at design and picking people and marketing,” Gates said. “You wouldn’t walk into a room and confuse them with each other.”

Indeed, Musk often talks about his demanding schedule and his hands on approach. For example, on a Tesla earnings call in November 2017, Musk said he was spending all hours in the Tesla battery production factory, even sleeping on the floor and skipping showers to catch up on Tesla 3 production in 2018. 

“I am personally on that line, in that machine, trying to solve problems personally where I can,” Musk said on the call. “We are working seven days a week to do it. And I have personally been here on zone 2 module line at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, helping diagnose robot calibration issues. So I’m doing everything I can.”

As for Jobs, he “was such a wizard at over-motivating people … I could see him casting the spells, and then I would look at people and see them mesmerized,” Gates told podcast host Dax Shepard Aug. 20.

For instance, Apple CEO Tim Cook has described how Jobs helped convince him to join Apple when the two met in 1998. Initially, Cook was hesitant, but “the way that [Jobs] talked, and the way the chemistry was in the room, it was just he and I,” he told Charlie Rose in a 2014 interview. “I looked at the problems Apple had, and I thought you know, I can make a contribution here. And working with him, and this is a privilege of a lifetime.

“And so all of a sudden I thought, I’m doing it. I’m going for it….”

Gates and Jobs had a famously complicated relationship.

Musk and Gates also have their differences. 

In August, Gates wrote a blog post about electric vehicles, saying that they will “never be a practical solution” for replacing trucks and long-haul vehicles. Musk responded to Gates’ comments on Twitter Sept. 11, saying that “he has no clue” about electric trucks. (Gates said in the Bloomberg interview that Musk’s electric car “is a huge contribution to the climate change effort,” that Tesla “did it with quality” and that “other car companies, seeing his success, will come [into the market].”)

Gates was also critical of Musk after Musk called California’s pandemic stay-at-home orders “fascist” on Tesla’s earnings call in April. “Elon’s positioning is to maintain a high level of outrageous comments. He’s not much involved in vaccines. He makes a great electric car. And his rockets work well. So, he’s allowed to say these things. I hope that he doesn’t confuse areas he’s not involved in too much,” Gates told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” of the comment in July.

Of course, Gates own reputation has evolved. In the early Microsoft days, Gates was known for setting high standards for the company and being very tough on his team. “I certainly wasn’t a sweetheart when I ran Microsoft,” he said on Shepard’s podcast.

A representative for Musk did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It’s request for comment.

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TikTok deal still has chance but WeChat ‘dead’ in U.S.: Trump official

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Despite a Commerce Department announcement of a ban on transactions, a deal that would allow TikTok to remain operating in the U.S. could still happen, a senior Trump administration official told CNBC on Friday.

However, the official said WeChat, the social messaging app owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, is “dead in the United States.”

Earlier Friday, the Commerce Department announced it was banning U.S. business transactions involving the TikTok and WeChat. Beginning Sunday, American companies will no longer be able to distribute WeChat and TikTok, taking away their availability in U.S. app store libraries.  

WeChat will be able to continue operating for people who have it installed on their devices, according to department officials who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity. But issues may arise because WeChat uses services run by U.S. firms to deliver data in the app. 

More stringent restrictions on TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, in the U.S. are set to go into effect Nov. 12, based on the Commerce moves Friday. The actions are the latest developments in weeks of uncertainty stemming from President Donald Trump’s claims that the Chinese-owned apps present national security risks to American users. 

It is still possible a deal involving Oracle and Walmart to take stakes in TikTok can happen. Oracle said earlier in the week it had a deal in place with TikTok, but Trump said days later he was not ready to sign off on the proposal to make the California-based cloud company a technology partner with the social media app. Trump indicated he wanted a larger portion of the entity to be owned by U.S. partners.

Negotiations for a TikTok deal may persist through the weekend, as “a lot of major pieces” need to be resolved, including ownership structure and questions over TikTok’s software. However, the official said there is a chance for a transaction to be finalized before the Commerce Department’s latest restrictions go into effect. 

There is no appetite in the Trump administration for a separate deal involving WeChat, which is a vital app for people in the U.S. to communicate with friends and family in China. 

In a statement Friday, a Tencent spokesperson said it “has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security” and called the Commerce Department’s restrictions “unfortunate.”

“But given our desire to provide ongoing services to our users in the U.S. — for whom WeChat is an important communication tool — we will continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the U.S. ways to achieve a long-term solution,” the spokesperson said.

—CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this article.

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WHO says pandemic is killing about 50,000 people a week

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