Judge Temporarily Blocks Trump Administration’s Order to Remove WeChat From App Stores

Judge Temporarily Blocks Trump Administration’s Order to Remove WeChat From App Stores
The messenger app WeChat is seen among U.S. flags in this illustration picture taken on Aug. 7, 2020. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

A U.S. judge early Sept. 20 halted the Trump administration from requiring Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to remove Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat for downloads by late Sept. 20.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco 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.”

On Sept. 18, the U.S. Commerce Department issued an order citing national security grounds to block the app from U.S. app stores owned by Tencent Holdings, and the Justice Department had urged Beeler not to block the order. Tencent and the Justice Department didn’t immediately comment.

Beeler’s preliminary injunction also blocked the Commerce order that would have barred other transactions with WeChat in the United States that could have dramatically degraded the site’s usability for current U.S. users or potentially made it unusable. The U.S. Commerce Department didn’t immediately comment.

WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, Americans living in China, and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.

The Justice Department said blocking the order would “frustrate and displace the president’s determination of how best to address threats to national security.”

Beeler wrote “certainly the government’s overarching national-security interest is significant. But on this record — while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national security concerns — it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.

U.S. officials have said the Chinese messaging app poses a security risk because Americans’ data could be transferred to Beijing, given that Chinese laws compel companies to cooperate with security agencies when asked.

The Justice Department also argued that WeChat users could switch to other apps or platforms.

The WeChat Users Alliance that had sued praised the ruling “as an important and hard-fought victory” for “millions of WeChat users in the U.S.”

Michael Bien, a lawyer for the users, said “the United States has never shut down a major platform for communications, not even during war times. There are serious First Amendment problems with the WeChat ban, which targets the Chinese American community.”

Separately, the Commerce Department late Sept. 19 said it was delaying enforcement of another order that also would have banned U.S. app stores from offering TikTok starting late Sept. 20.

The one-week delay came after U.S. President Donald Trump on Sept. 19 blessed a deal with TikTok owner ByteDance and U.S. companies Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. to create a new company to handle TikTok’s U.S. operations.

By David Shepardson