Constitution and Context in the TikTok and WeChat Executive Orders

President Trump has now issued three Executive Orders (EOs) prohibiting  WeChat and TikTok from transacting business in the United States.  The first two EOs were issued on August 6 pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (NEA) and  3 USC Sec. 301.  The statutory bases for the two Executive Orders are identical.  On August 14, another EO was issued pursuant to the Defense Production Act (which governs the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) (50 USC Sec. 4565).  The latter EO requires ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to divest all of its assets in the United States.

The TikTok EOs are milestones in the ongoing investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment (“CFIUS”) in the United States calling for retroactive divestment by TikTok.  The WeChat order is more unexpected. True to its CFIUS parentage, the second TikTok order specifically requires divestment of “any tangible or intangible assets or property, wherever located, used to enable or support ByteDance’s operation of the TikTok application in the United States…and… any data obtained or derived from TikTok application or Musical.​ly application users in the United States.” This second TikTok EO also falls within prior CFIUS precedents regarding Chinese internet platforms accessing US data, including Chinese acquisitions of the gay dating site Grindr and the medical data platform PatientsLikeMe.

Prof. Robert Chesney in his Lawfare blog has observed that the wording of the WeChat EO is potentially broader than the (first) Tiktok EO since it applies more generally to the parent company, TenCent, and TenCent has widespread U.S. investments apart from its WeChat operation.  The WeChat order specifically extends to “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with Tencent …”   Through its expansion to the parent company, the WeChat EO attempts to place a broader restriction on the operations of the Chinese company in the US, and potentially has broad-reaching impacts on IP rights as well.

The three EOs seek to limit the risks posed by Chinese access to US data.  While the EOs refer to “property,” no order specifically refers to traditional intellectual property: patents, trademarks, copyrights or trade secrets.  Such rights, however, are also likely to be affected by these EOs.  The USPTO database reveals that Tencent is listed as an owner or assignee of 2,124 US patents as of August 11, 2020.  Bytedance has 18.  The Tencent portfolio is especially broad, covering communications, video games, video and sound transmission and encoding, etc.  In addition, Tencent has important licensing arrangements with the NBA, Warner Music, and others.   Both companies may also be licensees of other US technological goods and services.  Efforts to strip them of their licensing activity for US interests in China could be especially regrettable.

IEEPA has imposed limitations on IP rights in the past.  Typically, patents and other IP rights had been considered property subject to a sanctions regime, although a license is typically granted or available for prosecution or maintenance of the right.   See Iranian Sanctions (2012), Bacardi Rum WTO case.  During WWI practice had been to sell off patent rights of an enemy, much as happened to Bayer’s patent rights in aspirin during WW I.  The President retains considerable discretion in the exercise of his administrative authority to affect the interests of regulated entities, even if an EO or regulation does not specifically encompass patents.  Regulation of patents as property is arguably contemplated by the patent law itself, which states: “patents shall have the attributes of personal property” (35 USC Sec. 261).  Although the  Supreme Court in the Oil States decision  (2018) held that patents are “public franchises,” not property rights, this may not have great impact on expansive national security rule making.

The IEEPA basis of the first two EOs is evidenced by comparison to the subsequently stated authorities which are more general in nature.  The NEA (50 USC  Secs. 1601 –1651) is an omnibus law for regulating Presidential declarations of emergencies.  Title 3 gives the President general authority to delegate responsibilities.   IEEPA authorizes the President to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States  (50 USC Sec. 1701 et seq.).  Usually IEEPA is administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury.   For unexplained reasons, the  EOs delegate IEEPA authority in these matters to the Department of Commerce.  Perhaps this was because Treasury Secretary Mnuchin reportedly did not support this action, or because of the impending action under CFIUS affecting TikTok.

These three EOs are part of the continuing weaponization by the Trump administration’s practice of US national emergency laws.   The motivations behind these efforts may, however, be clearer than the legal research underpinning them.  As my colleague at Berkeley, Jim Dempsey, has noted in a blog on Lawfare, “the latest moves [are] … part of a comprehensive strategy to purge anything Chinese from the U.S. telecommunications and internet ecosystem and to degrade the attractiveness of Chinese-made communications products and services to overseas buyers as well.”

Importantly, IEEPA is oriented towards economic actions.  It principally regulates “transactions”.  The two earlier EOs similarly are directed to “transactions”.  Secs. 1(c).  These two EOs require Commerce to identify regulated “transactions” within 45 days.    The second TikTok EO requires divestment within 90 days of “any tangible or intangible assets or property, wherever located, used to enable or support ByteDance’s operation of the TikTok application in the United States, as determined by the [CFIUS]; and …  any data obtained or derived from TikTok application or Musical.​ly application users in the United States.” Although these and other actions taken by the Administration overlap in complex ways, the two earlier EOs primarily cause divestment through prospective regulation of “transactions”, while the second TikTok EO  impacts the prior investment in ByteDance by TikTok.

Based on prior OFAC practice, the definition of “transactions” under the first two EOs should include “(i) any transactions in foreign exchange, (ii) transfers of credit or payments between, by, through, or to any banking institution, to the extent that such transfers or payments involve any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof, (iii) the importing or exporting of currency or securities.” Absent any regulatory exceptions, these traditional subjects of IEEPA regulation should capture payments made for a WeChat account or service, social marketing transactions facilitated via WeChat, or license fees for copyrighted content.

To the extent it reaches into content regulation, the Administration’s approach under IEEPA raises other, challenging legal issues.  Does  use of the App and/or transferring information to WeChat/TikTok in the form of using the App, constitute a financial “transaction” if no payment is involved?   What rights do we have in the US to disclose our private information?  In the absence of comprehensive national privacy legislation, how should we understand the Administration’s singling out of TikTok and WeChat?  What type of precedent does this establish for censorship in the United States of the Internet, Apps, and further creation of a parallel Internet with China, or “splinternet”, etc.? Why did the Trump Administration choose a national security route for regulation, rather than insisting on ahderence to verifiable standards and reciprocity?

There may also be constitutional limitations on how the Administration can regulate apps pursuant to IEEPA.  IEEPA denies authority to the President to “regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly – any postal, telegraphic, telephonic, or other personal communication, which does not involve a transfer of anything of value” (emphasis supplied) and should thereby exempt digital communication.  There are other related constitutional carve-outs and related exceptions to IEEPA.  The Berman Amendment to IEEPA also created a carve-out for imports of informational materials from embargoed countries.  Regulation of software imports is analogous to the Berman exception carveout on informational materials. Precedent under the Export Controls regime has held that software source code (for cryptography) is a kind of free speech with attached First Amendment rights, including limitations on prior restraints (Bernstein v. United States).  The court in the Bernstein decision also interestingly referred to copyright law as a body of law which also views software as a creative expression.  The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has also properly identified serious constitutional concerns: TikTok Ban: A Seed of Genuine Security Concern Wrapped in a Thick Layer of Censorship (August 4, 2020).  As EFF has noted:

“The word ‘Indirectly’ here is important, because many possible bans would not speak of the TikTok messages, but the app or the company. Jarred Taylor’s 2012 law review article Information Wants to be Free (of Sanctions) cogently explains why this amendment means the President cannot prohibit foreign access to social media under U.S. export regulations. Likewise, the President cannot prohibit American access to foreign social media.”

How important are these apps to freedom of expression in the United States? Initial evidence shows a 41% spike in downloads of WeChat after the EOs were announced, as well as in downloads of an encryption partner to WeChat, Signal, and a WeChat alternative owed by Tencent, QQ.  QQ downloads tripled.  Finally, downloads of TikTok video-sharing alternatives have also increased.

One may also question the Administration’s selection of TikTok and WeChat for risk mitigation. Huawei technology arguably carries similar risks to use of a TikTok or WeChat app.  By comparison, there is no ban on using  Huawei consumer technology in the United States.  Amazon has a Huawei store on its US platform.  An even greater concern might be all the China-manufactured Internet-connected consumer devices that most of us have.  Some commentators have also suggested that the President’s singling out of TikTok was due to the use of TikTok to undermine Trump’s Tulsa rally,

The “transaction” restriction under IEEPA may also create serious problems for US companies in China that may be prohibited from using WeChat or including the WeChat app in phones. Law firms marketing to or providing services to TikTok to WeChat may also face problems in the United States.  For example, one might represent a country or individual in court that is the subject of an IEEPA or other OFAC-administered embargo (e.g., Trading with the Enemy Act) but due to the “transaction restriction” one may not be paid absent a license.

A more thoughtful approach might have been to enact legislation regarding privacy or confidentiality of international communications of US entities, similar to Europe or California, and/or to ensure that servers are located in countries where privacy and confidentiality might be compromised.  Additionally, the Administration might have insisted on reciprocity for all US Internet companies operating in China.

There are also technical workarounds to these prohibitions for individuals prohibitions, such as via VPN’s – although their legality may depend on how the Administration decides to define “transaction” and how extensively it wishes to enforce.  Although WeChat and TikTok have millions of users in the United States, if the Administration believes it has a legal basis to pursue users, I personally take little comfort in workarounds.  Pervasive use of an illegal software product is not a sufficient obstacle to enforcement.  An analogy might be made to the 35,000 Napster/Grokster copyright cases brought by the recording industry, which potentially implicated millions of users in copyright infringement.  Moreover, US export control agencies have gone after “small fry” to make a point.  The Bernstein case, noted above, involved a graduate student/plaintiff at UC Berkeley.   It is prudent to consider how to preserve contact information and channels of communication if their usage does become blocked.

The Administration’s determination to further separate US dependency on Chinese technology is not likely to end with TikTok and WeChat.  On August 15, 2020, President Trump suggested that he may begin pressuring other Chinese tech companies, such as Alibaba, after TikTok.

Update of August 24, 2020: At least three court cases have already been filed challenging these bans in California.  Here are the complaints: WeChat users,TikTok, and Ryan vs Trump. 

Unpacking the Role of IP Legislation in the Trade War

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Here is my attempt to unpack recent legislation and their relevance to the on-going trade dispute.

In recent months, China has amended its Foreign Investment Law, the Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), the Anti-Unfair Competition Law regarding trade secrets, and the Trademark Law, with new provisions on bad faith filings and damages. A summary of the Trademark Law revisions provided by SIPS is found here. China also amended the Joint Venture Regulations provisions removing provisions that which limited a foreign licensor’s freedom to license technology beyond years or to restrict use of licensed technology after the 10 year period had elapsed.

With the revisions to the TIER and the JV regulations, much of the basis for the US and EU complaints against China at the WTO regarding de jure forced technology transfer may have evaporated (WTO Disputes DS542, and DS549). However, the public dockets do not indicate that the cases have been withdrawn.

China seems to have determined that it has crossed a line in how much it can accommodate US demands. Bloomberg reported on a commentary published after the imposition of escalated sanctions in the influential “China Voice” column of the People’s Daily which accused the US of fabricating forced technology transfer claims. The commentary is entitled “If you want to condemn somebody, don’t worry about the pretext”, with the sub-title, written in classical Chinese: “‘Forced Technology Transfer’ Should Stop!”. (欲加之罪,何患无辞 – “中国强制转让技术论”可以休矣). The title is a quotation from the Zuo Zhuan, a classic of Chinese history written around 400 B.C. that realistically describes the palace intrigues, military tactics, assassinations, etc. from the chaotic “Spring and Autumn” period from 771-476 B.C. The People’s Daily view is also shared by a number of scholars and observers who view the problem as exaggerated or mischaracterized (apart from the TIER and JV regulations). However, this view has been rejected by USTR Lighthizer, as was reported in a recent NPR interview (March 25, 2019):

“CHANG: Though a number of scholars believe the Trump administration is overstating how often forced technology transfers are happening.

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I guess I don’t know who those scholars are. We did an eight-month study on it, and I think it’s the very strong view of the people that we talked to that it’s a very serious problem and has been for a number of years.”

(Update of May 21, 2019: A recent EU Chamber survey in fact showed an increase in businesses reporting that FTT is a concern, from 10% two years ago to 20%.)

There have also been several IP legislative developments that may not be as directly linked to US government trade pressure. Perhaps the most important is the launch of China’s new national appellate IP Court effective January 1, 2019. The NPC has released a draft of the civil code provisions on personality rights (See this translation). Personality rights can be important tools in addressing trademark squatting, such as in the Michael Jordan case with Qiaodan. CNIPA also released Draft Provisions for Regulating Applications for Trademark Registration (关于规范商标申请注册行为的若干规定(征求意见稿) which addresses bad faith registrations. CNIPA released a draft rule for public comment on Protection of Foreign GI’s (国外地理标志产品保护办法 (修订征求意见稿)on February 28, 2019. The comments focus on generic terms and a GI expert committee for examination of foreign GI’s. Here are INTA’s comments on the trademark registration and GI proposed rules. CNIPA also proposed changes to patent examination guidelines on such issues as proof of inventive step and what constitutes “common knowledge.” Here are AIPLA’s comments from April 4, 2019.

Still pending are proposed amendments to the Drug Administration Law, with comments due by May 25, 2019. This is a second public comment draft released by the NPC. Ropes & Gray has provided a useful analysis. The proposed changes to the DAL also include increased punitive damages for counterfeit medicines, in line with increased penalties in the IP laws (Trademark, AUCL, etc.). There are also proposed changes to the patent law which was released for comment earlier this year. Of particular interest to the pharma sector in the proposed changes were provisions calling for patent term restoration. However, a hoped for inclusion of patent linkage through an “artificial infringement” provision to trigger an infringement challenge by reason of a pharmaceutical regulatory approval has not yet materialized. There were also rumors that China and USTR has scaled back regulatory data protection for biologics from the 12 years that had originally been proposed by China in 2018 to the 10 year period provided by the US Mexico Canada Free Trade Agreement.

What is the relationship between all these legislative changes and the trade war? Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, described the legislative snafu that caused the administration to reinstitute tariffs as follows:

“For many years, China trade, it was unfair, nonreciprocal, unbalanced, in many cases, unlawful. And so, we have to correct those and one of the sticking points right now as we would like to see these corrections in an agreement which is codified by law in China, not just the state council announcement. We need to see something much clearer. And until we do, we have to keep our tariffs on, that’s part of the enforcement process as far as we are concerned.”

So what are the unenacted “laws” and what is the State Council “announcement” that Mr. Kudlow is referring to and which in his view launched this new trade war escalation? I doubt that Mr. Kudlow has read China’s Law on Legislation and understands the difference between a Law passed by the NPC and a State Council Regulation, particularly as US and European practice in recent months appears to be oblivious of legislative nomenclature and its role in determining what constitutes a legally binding document.

Perhaps Mr. Kudlow is talking about the NDRC 38 agency MOU published in late 2018 regarding punishments for serious patent infringement, including use of social credit system. The NDRC document is clearly inferior to a Law or State Council Regulation, but it was a directly promulgated document of a State Council agency. As the patent law amendments have not been enacted yet, he may be referring to this delay in enactment and the failure to increase damages for infringement as has been provided by other statutes. In my own view, the focus on punitive or even statutory damages is misguided as is increased administrative enforcement, as the primary reason that damages are low is the failure of most Chinese courts to impose fully compensatory damages and abide by priorities in law for establishing damages. But I hope to have more on that in another blog…

One thing is certain: China has been timing legislative developments with trade diplomacy. This may lead one to believe that China’s approach to the new laws was purely transactional, and/or there were other laws that the US was also expecting but that China has since declined to deliver. The previously mentioned NDRC 38 Agency MOU was enacted before the G-20 meeting but made publicly available shortly thereafter. The “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa [2018] No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法(试行)) which was previously discussed here, appear to have been timed with the 301 announcement in March 2018. In addition, the revocation of TIER provisions, JV implementing regulations, and amendments to the Trademark Law and AUCL revisions all were enacted with incredible efficiency, often denying any opportunity for meaningful public comment in violation of prior procedural practices. A reasonable guess may be that there were some additional laws or regulations that the US was expecting but that China had determined it could not deliver, or deliver in the time frame provided. Nonetheless, the legislative track record thus far is quite impressive.

China’s improved environment for technology transfer and technology collaboration is coming at a time when the United States has tightened up its controls with China. The most notable legislation in this area is the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act for 2018 (the “Act”), including the enactment of the Foreign Investment Risk Reduction Modernization Act and the Export Controls Act of 2018. These laws extended export control and foreign investment control authorities to foundational and emerging technologies, as well as to non-passive, non-controlling investments. Much of the technologies of concern overlap with Made in China 2025 and other Chinese industrial policy documents. Although the Act did not specifically create “black” and “white” countries as subjects of controls, the Congressional history did point to special concerns about China:

“Congress declares that long-term strategic competition with China is a principal priority for the United States that requires the integration of multiple elements of national power, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military elements, to protect and strengthen national [t]security, [including] … the use of economic tools, including market access and investment to gain access to sensitive United States industries.”

The most recent report which analyzes the impact of US and Chinese regulations on Chinese investment in the United States by Rhodium Group is found here (May 8, 2019). The report notes an “over 80% decline in Chinese FDI in the US to just $5 billion from $29 billion in 2017 and $46 billion in 2016. Accounting for asset divestitures, net 2018 Chinese FDI in the US was -$8 billion. Meanwhile, American FDI in China dropped only slightly to $13 billion in 2018 from $14 billion in 2017.” The Rhodium report also notes that “the chilling impact of politics on US FDI in China was mostly visible in the ICT space where new investment declined significantly last year.” Other countries have also been enacting similar restrictions on FDI in sensitive areas, as pointed out in a recent article by my Berkeley colleague Vinod K. Aggarawal. Note: I will be speaking at a forthcoming AIPLA webinar on export controls and IP strategies on May 23, 2019 as well as at forthcoming events in China (to be announced).

In addition to these legislative efforts, the US has undertaken steps to restrict H1B visas for talented scientists and engineers and the FBI has created a new working group to address economic espionage from China. The Committee of 100 released an important paper in 2017 showing that Asian Americans were more likely to be prosecuted for economic espionage than any other ethnic group, are also subject to higher sentences and were twice as likely as other groups to have cases against them dismissed. Some observers fear that overly broad regulation and enforcement by the United States may now be encouraging exactly what China has sought to do for decades: repatriate to China the vast talent pool of Chinese scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to contribute to the technological development of the motherland.

Although there have been few legislative efforts directed to making US science and technology more competitive in response to these perceived threats from China, there have been several general reports and proposals. The National Institute of Science and Technology recently released a green paper, “Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation” (April 2019) to improve federal technology transfer and entrepreneurship. There are increasing calls for Congress to fund the long defunct Office of Technology Assessment, which once played an active role in analyzing US-China technology trade.

Several trade organizations and think tanks have called for increased US funding in science and technology, among them is the recent report of the Task Force of American Innovation, “Second Place America – Increasing Challenges to America’s Scientific Leadership” (May 7, 2019). The R&D graph at the head of this blog showing China’s rapid growth in R&D is from that report. The report notes:

“America’s competitive edge is now at stake, as China and other countries are rapidly increasing investments in research and workforce development in order to assume positions of global leadership. Our nation risks falling perilously behind in the basic scientific research that drives innovation, as our global competitors increase support for cutting-edge research and push to the forefront in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and the next generation of telecommunications networks.”

To round out this summary of legislative developments, there have been developments at the USPTO that impact US relations with China on IP. The USPTO published a proposed regulation which will regulate legal services for the rapidly increasing number of Chinese pro se trademark filers in the US (2/15/2019). This proposed regulation would require these applications to use a US licensed attorney. The purported purpose of this change in current practice is “instill greater confidence in the public that U.S. registrations that issue to foreign applicants are not subject to invalidation for reasons such as improper signatures and use claims and enable the USPTO to more effectively use available mechanisms to enforce foreign applicant compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements in trademark matters.” The rule also seems generally consistent with TRIPS Art. 3, which permits WTO members to require “the appointment of an agent within the jurisdiction of a Member … to secure compliance with laws and regulations which are not inconsistent with the provisions of [the TRIPS] Agreement”.

Another important development involves USPTO efforts to clarify subject matter eligibility under Sec. 101 of the patent act, and functional claim limitations for computer-enabled inventions under Section 112. The United States had been weakening and destabilizing protections in these important areas affecting artificial intelligence, fintech and biotech inventions at the precise time when China had been strengthening its protections. These are important steps towards strengthening predictability in our domestic IP system, which may be further strengthened by proposed legislative changes.

Ironically, China’s improvements in its investment and tech transfer environment are coming at a time of heightened concern over a Chinese technological threat and increased US and international regulatory scrutiny. It may be difficult, therefore, to perceive any immediate positive impact from changes in China’s investment environment. Indeed, the media has recently been reporting on decisions of different companies or entrepreneurs to close down R&D operations in each other’s markets. Hopefully, both countries may ultimately create the right mix of IP enforcement and protection, regulatory controls over collaboration and industrial policy to enable bilateral scientific collaboration to once again flourish and contribute to the global economy.

Still Time to Register: Practical Issues in CFIUS and Export Controls

The dramatic expansion of the scope of the CFIUS process and its complex interaction with changing export control regimes pose complex challenges to companies in the United States and throughout the world. This seminar will present practical insights on how to navigate these regimes.  If your company or clients are involved in technology collaboration overseas or in attracting foreign investment and talent to research in the United States, you may find this program invaluable.

​​Date: April 10, 2019

Location: Krutch Theatre, Clark Kerr Campus Conference Center, 2601 Warring St, Berkeley, CA 94720

This is the Google Maps link.

Time: 3:00 – 5:30

Cost: No Charge

Preregistration link.

Agenda

3:00 – 3:30 Registration

3:30 – 4:15 Latest Developments in US export controls, CFIUS, FIRRMA and agency implementation of the new regime, and best practices

Moderator: Mark Cohen, UC Berkeley

Discussants: Jeanette Chu (Pricewaterhouse Coopers), Lawrence Ward (Dorsey & Whitney).

4:30 – 5:15 Perspectives from “under the hood” (former officials involved in the CFIUS process and users of the export controls/CFIUS/ system)

Moderator: Mark Cohen

Discussants: Jim Mendenhall (Sidley & Austin) Justin Huff (Jones Day),   Ben Kostrzewa (Hogan Lovells), Greg Slater (Intel), Brian Warshawsky (U of California, Office of the President), Piin-fen Kok (Pacific Pension Institute/impact on portfolio investment),   Yvonne Cheng Yuanyuan (King & Wood Mallesons/Chinese investment perspectives),  Gabrielle Liu (Beijing IP Paragon Law Firm).

5:15 – 5:30 Q&A

5:30  Reception