Judge in WeChat case appears unlikely to allow US ban to move forward

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A judge in San Francisco said Thursday she’s not likely to lift a temporary block on the US government’s attempts to ban WeChat. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler responded to the Trump administration’s request for a stay of her September 20th preliminary injunction, which prevents the government from halting new downloads of WeChat in the US and from blocking transactions related to the app.

Beeler did not issue a ruling Thursday but said the government had not presented new evidence to persuade her that there were significant national security concerns with allowing WeChat to remain active in the US. Beeler said in her September 20th order that a group of WeChat users had shown “serious questions” about whether the ban would potentially violate their First Amendment rights, even considering such concerns.

President Trump issued an executive order in August to ban WeChat, invoking the Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act. But a group of users calling themselves the WeChat Users Alliance — not officially connected to WeChat or parent company Tencent — says banning the app in the US would violate users’ free speech rights, and such a ban specifically targets Chinese Americans.

There is no alternative app that does everything WeChat does, the group argues, saying the “super app” is the primary way Chinese speakers in the US participate in social life, and receive news and information, conduct phone calls and videoconferences, upload documents and photos, and make payments. WeChat has 19 million US users and 1 billion users around the world. And amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been used by police departments in the US to inform users about testing locations, organize delivery of medical supplies, and allowed families to stay in contact with elderly relatives in nursing homes, the alliance says.

But the government considers WeChat parent company Tencent a security risk. Tencent can collect a “digital facsimile of a person’s life” on WeChat, Justice Department attorney Serena Orloff said at Thursday’s hearing, furthering the administration’s argument that Tencent is too closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. Orloff argued there are other apps that provide similar functions to WeChat that were widely available.

The previous order blocked the Commerce Department order that would have banned US transactions on WeChat. And while the US government says it has identified “significant” threats to national security, there is “scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all US users addresses those concerns,” Beeler wrote.

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