By Sebastian Herrera and Katy Stech Ferek
A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the Trump
administration's executive order curbing Americans' use of WeChat,
upholding a motion from users of the popular Chinese-owned
messaging and e-commerce app.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler entered an order Sunday for
a preliminary injunction blocking the federal ban on U.S. downloads
and other functions from going into force as scheduled for 11:59
The ruling is a victory for WeChat's owner, Chinese tech giant
Tencent Holdings Ltd., and the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, the
nonprofit organization representing several mobile app users that
filed the motion against the Trump administration in August. The
group, which has said it isn't affiliated with Tencent, said it
consists of users who rely on WeChat for business and personal
In her 22-page order, Judge Beeler agreed with free-speech
arguments raised by the user groups, saying she is convinced that
"there are no viable substitute platforms or apps for the
Chinese-speaking and Chinese-American community."
"WeChat is effectively the only means of communication for many
in the community, not only because China bans other apps, but also
because Chinese speakers with limited English proficiency have no
options other than WeChat," she said in the order.
The mobile app, which has 19 million regular users in the U.S.
and more than 1.2 billion users world-wide, enables users to send
messages, make phone calls and transfer money. It also functions as
a social-media platform and is widely used by companies in China --
including U.S. companies operating there -- for business
communications and marketing.
The Trump administration contends that the data that WeChat
collects from U.S. users could be shared with the Chinese
government. The company disagrees, saying it "incorporates the
highest standards of user privacy and data security."
Judge Beeler said that while the U.S. government's concerns
about the national security threats are significant, "the specific
evidence about WeChat is modest."
In recent decades, federal judges have often sided with the U.S.
government when it raises national security issues in legal
challenges. But because it raises First Amendment issues, the
WeChat case stands apart from a typical national security case
around, for example, international sanctions or Treasury reviews of
foreign business deals, said Dan Gerkin, an international trade and
national security lawyer for Kirkland & Ellis LLP in
"The circumstances are unique," he said. "It's unusual in the
ordinary course for there to be national security concerns jutting
up against free speech concerns."
A spokesman for Tencent said it was reviewing the judgment and
didn't immediately comment.
Representatives for the Commerce Department, which was preparing
to implement the order, didn't immediately respond to a request for
The Commerce Department issued regulations Friday that explained
how it would carry out President Trump's Aug. 6 order to ban U.S.
companies from providing app downloads or updates for WeChat and
another Chinese-owned app, TikTok, on Sunday night.
On Saturday, the department put the TikTok ban on hold, citing
progress on a deal that would add national-security safeguards for
the video-sharing app's U.S. users.
President Trump said he has agreed in concept to a deal under
which TikTok will partner with Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. to
become a U.S.-based company, capping negotiations that have stirred
debate over national security and the future of the internet.
On WeChat, the Commerce Department's order also would ban money
transfers in the U.S. using the app, and bar companies from
providing data-hosting services for WeChat. The restrictions would
essentially make the app unusable over time even for those who have
already downloaded it.
The order, however, allows U.S. companies to continue using
WeChat outside of the country -- a critical point because many
American businesses that operate in China use WeChat to do
transactions with their customers there.
WeChat's domestic sister app Weixin is dominant in China, where
it is used to communicate and to shop and pay for everything from
restaurant meals to major purchases. WeChat in the U.S. has also
become important among Chinese Americans who use it to communicate
with family and friends overseas.
Lawyers representing the WeChat Users Alliance sued the Trump
administration Aug. 21 over the ban. They have argued that the
executive order violated users' First Amendment rights, and that
the government hadn't provided sufficient evidence of WeChat's
negative effect on national security. Plaintiffs have also said the
order discriminately targets Chinese-Americans.
A ban would "cut off communications not only between millions of
people in the United States with each other but also communications
with friends, families, and businesses in China and the rest of the
Chinese diaspora that rely on WeChat," lawyers representing the
alliance wrote in a filing before a hearing in the case
U.S. government lawyers have said the ban doesn't infringe on
First Amendment rights of WeChat users because users have
alternative options for communicating.
WeChat "is well recognized as working to advance the Chinese
government's aims over propaganda, censorship, surveillance and
misinformation both inside and outside China," government lawyers
wrote in a court filing. They have said they wouldn't pursue legal
action against individuals who use WeChat for personal or business
Tencent on Friday said it planned to continue discussions with
the government and stakeholders on how it could continue providing
services to U.S. users. The Asian tech giant has played down the
threat of the U.S. ban, saying it would only apply to the
international version of its app.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com and Katy
Stech Ferek at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 20, 2020 15:03 ET (19:03 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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