Judge halts Trump administration order banning WeChat

The move came in response to a lawsuit filed by a WeChat user coalition which said the ban would harm their rights and jeopardise ties with families, friends and business contacts

Judge halts Trump administration order banning WeChat
The lawyers' group for WeChat users in the US expects that the Trump administration may appeal the court decision. File photo by AFP.

(ATF) A US judge in California has granted a preliminary nationwide injunction halting the Trump administration’s ban of Chinese app WeChat.

The move on Sunday came in response to a lawsuit filed by a WeChat user coalition which said the ban would harm their First Amendment rights and jeopardise their ties with families, friends and business contacts.

The lawyers' group that initiated the WeChat user coalition described the judge's move as a “historic success” for Chinese people living in the United States.

US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco said in an order that the plaintiffs have shown “serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim, the balance of hardships tips in the plaintiffs’ favour.”

"Certainly the government's overarching national-security interest is significant," Beeler wrote, but the Trump administration "has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all US users addresses those concerns".

“There are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security,” the judge added.

The order does not prevent the Secretary of Commerce from reconsidering his decisions or from identifying other prohibited WeChat-related transactions, the judge said.

The US WeChat Users Alliance (USWUA), a nonprofit organisation initiated by a group of Chinese American lawyers, welcomed the ruling, saying in a WeChat post that “this is the first time that Chinese people in the United States, united together, has successfully challenged a presidential executive order through the court.”

This also came as a success to fight a wave of discrimination and hatred against Chinese people associated with Covid-19, USWUA added.

The lawyers' group for USWUA expects that the Trump administration may appeal the court decision, and says it will actively respond to defend its hard-fought success.

ALSO SEE: Trump to shut off TikTok, WeChat to new US users on Sunday

Sunday September 20 was the starting date of a ban on the Chinese app WeChat set by the Trump administration.

On August 6, the Trump administration issued an executive order that prohibits people or entities in the US from conducting any WeChat-related “transactions”, citing national security grounds. The executive order left the term “transaction” vague and only said it would be defined later by the Secretary of Commerce.

Two weeks later, believing Trump’s executive order may completely ban the WeChat use in the US and severely impact Chinese people’s lives and work, USWUA filed a lawsuit in a Federal Court in San Francisco aiming to rescind the president’s executive order.

ALSO SEE: US lawyers challenge WeChat ban

Last Friday, or two days before the WeChat ban’s start date, US Department of Commerce issued a statement to specify the “transactions” prohibited, which include any services to distribute or maintain the WeChat app through a US application store, transferring funds or processing payments through WeChat, as well as internet hosting or content delivery network services that enable the app.

In response to the Department of Commerce’s announcement, USWUA quickly filed a renewed motion, and convinced the judge to issue a preliminary injunction after an emergency hearing on Saturday afternoon.

The all-in-one WeChat app has no US app equivalent – it’s a social network and messaging tool, a payment service, a news source, and a host to an array of “mini-apps” by third-party service providers.

While WeChat is ubiquitous in China, it has about 19 million users in the United States and is a primary way many US users communicate with their family members and run businesses in Chinese communities.

In addition to a WeChat ban, the Commerce Department's decision issued on Friday was also in response to another executive order signed by Trump in August, banning TikTok, a video-sharing app owned by ByteDance.

The two executive orders were scheduled to go into effect on Sunday, but both have been postponed. The ban on TikTok has been postponed while the company makes a deal with Oracle and Walmart as key stakeholders in a US-based company that will be called TikTok Global.

ALSO SEE: Confusion over status of TikTok