WeChat ban in US may be suspended after legal challenge

Lawyers predict it will be the subject of a court injunction, meanwhile Tencent has set up a backup plan by launching WeCom ahead of the ban, which President Trump says will start on Sunday

WeChat ban may temporarily halt even as it rebrands in US
The WeChat logo that could soon disappear in the US. File photo by Reuters. 

In a clever move ahead of the looming ban on WeChat in the US, Chinese tech giant Tencent has changed the name of its WeChat Work mobile app to WeCom. But the bigger news is that a US judge has said she is willing to temporarily halt the ban imposed by President Trump, according to a report on Friday.

In a filing to United States Patent and Trademark Office, Tencent registered the WeCom trademark on August 19, as a potential alternative to its messaging app WeChat.

However, Reuters also reported that US Judge Laurel Beeler told a hearing on Thursday she is ready to grant a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the US president's order is unclear and “vague”.

A final decision though, was not issued by the judge on the ban, according to the news agency.

Pushback from WeChat users

President Trump issued orders on August 6 that targeted WeChat and TikTok as purported national-security threats and imposed a September 20 deadline for the Commerce Department to draft specific measures for blocking “transactions” with the Chinese owners of the apps.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is set to release regulations by Sunday clarifying what WeChat transactions will be prohibited.

But the non-profit US WeChat Users Alliance filed a lawsuit on August 23 in the US District Court in San Francisco, seeking a preliminary injunction to bar the Trump administration from prohibiting the use of WeChat in the US by individual users, businesses and groups.

Read more: US lawyers challenge WeChat ban

They allege that Trump's order targets and silences WeChat users, the overwhelming majority of whom are members of the Chinese and Chinese-speaking communities.

According to the estimated 19 million WeChat users in the US, WeChat is not just a messaging app, but it is an “all-in-one mobile app” that combines messaging, social media, payment functions and other services.

In the US, the so-called “super app” is essential for daily life and is widely used by Chinese expats and others to communicate with friends and associates in China, they claimed.

WeCom is 'not WeChat'

According to Tencent sources however, WeCom does not fall under the scope of a ban on WeChat since it is a separate app. But WeCom users can link their WeChat account and add their WeChat contacts, to the new app.

A Reuters test has also shown that WeCom users can then message, create chat groups, and even receive virtual money from WeChat friends without having to download their WeChat contacts on WeCom.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said in a filing on Wednesday that the Commerce Department does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection with WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users.

It said such users would not be exposed to criminal or civil liability.

The government filing also said that using and downloading the app to communicate won’t be a banned transaction, although messaging on the app could be directly or indirectly impaired by the ban.

(With reporting by Reuters)

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