VPN interest surges in the U.S. as TikTok and WeChat users panic about access to Chinese apps

This photo illustration taken on September 14, 2020 shows the logo of the social network application TikTok (L) and a US flag (R) shown on the screens of two laptops in Beijing.

Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — Interest in virtual private network (VPN) software surged in the U.S. over the weekend as citizens realized President Donald Trump could soon block their access to Chinese-made apps like TikTok and WeChat over national security concerns. 

VPNs allow users to conceal their location online and pretend to be somewhere they’re not. Chinese citizens use the software to access apps like Facebook and Google, which are blocked by the Chinese Communist Party. U.S. citizens could theoretically use a VPN to try to bypass a government block on TikTok or WeChat.

Daniel Markuson, digital privacy expert at NordVPN, told CNBC that NordVPN has seen more interest than normal from U.S. citizens since the announcement of the ban on TikTok and WeChat on Aug. 6.

“Expecting a (TikTok) ban to go into effect on Sunday, people rushed looking for VPN more actively: this weekend alone inquiries from the U.S. surged by 34%,” Markuson said in an email. NordVPN declined to give exact figures but said it has 14 million users globally.

Rival firm ExpressVPN has also seen an uptick in interest. Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, told CNBC:  “We saw a 20% increase in traffic to our website from the U.S. following Trump’s initial announcement of a potential TikTok and WeChat ban in early August.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Surfshark, another VPN provider, said the company saw a notable uptick in free trials. “Comparing last weekend (12-13 Sept.) to this weekend (19-20 Sept.), we reported a 38% surge in free trials. Since TikTok aims to reach Generation Z, the ‘mobile-first’ generation, I presume it might be connected,” they said. 

Edith Yeung, a general partner at venture firm Race Capital, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” that portfolio company Incognito VPN saw a “huge spike” over the weekend.

“Some users in the U.S. are worried if I can’t access TikTok or WeChat maybe now I have to use VPN in the U.S. to access other apps in China which is really, really ironic,” Yeung said.

“What’s funny is my mum uses WeChat to communicate with me,” she said. “So we started to talk about VPN apps.”

Last Friday, the Trump administration said TikTok would be banned from U.S. app stores from Sunday. However, on Sunday, Trump gave his “blessing” to ByteDance’s deal with Oracle that will allow TikTok to keep operating in the U.S.

Under the deal, ByteDance will retain 80% of a new TikTok global business, which will be headquartered in the U.S. Oracle and Walmart will have a 20% stake.

Over the weekend, a California judge temporarily blocked a U.S. Department of Commerce ban on WeChat just hours before it was due to come into action.

The U.S. Department of Commerce wants WeChat to be blocked due to national security concerns but Judge Laurel Beeler said in an order that WeChat users who filed a lawsuit “have shown serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim, the balance of hardships tips in the plaintiffs favor.”

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