Feds Eye Appeal of Block on Trump Ban of WeChat App

Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat was still available for download Monday, following a federal judge’s order over the weekend blocking the U.S. Commerce Department from forcing Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores.

Citing national security concerns, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders on Aug. 6 calling for a ban on Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok, making the former effectively unusable for those who have already downloaded it as of Sunday evening.

More than 19 million Americans use WeChat — one of the few social media apps the Chinese government allows to operate within its borders — and which enables people in the U.S. to communicate with friends and relatives in China. 

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Laurel Beeler found a group of WeChat users had shown that the prohibition effectively eliminates their ability to communicate, thereby impinging on First Amendment free speech protections. She heard their motion for a preliminary injunction virtually Thursday.

“[T]he plaintiffs have shown serious questions going to the merits of their First Amendment claim that the secretary’s prohibited transactions effectively eliminate the plaintiffs’ key platform for communication, slow or eliminate discourse, and are the equivalent of censorship of speech or a prior restraint on it,” Beeler wrote.

While the government had argued that users could simply switch to a different messaging platform, plaintiffs countered that WeChat is the only option for Chinese speakers with limited English proficiency. 

Beeler also found a complete WeChat ban excessive.

“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,” she wrote. “And, as the plaintiffs point out, 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.”

While the Commerce Department has yet to file an official challenge to the nationwide injunction, a spokesperson told Reuters on Monday that “prohibiting the identified transactions is necessary to protect the national security of the United States, and the department expects to soon seek relief from this order.”

In an emailed statement, a Justice Department spokesperson said, “The government’s view remains that Executive Order 13943 is fully consistent with law and promotes legitimate national security interests.  While the government will comply with the injunction, we are considering appropriate next steps and intend to vigorously defend the executive order and the Commerce Secretary’s implementation efforts from legal challenges.”

TikTok averted a shutdown of its app Sunday after President Donald Trump’s approved a deal in concept allowing Oracle and Walmart to run the app in the United States.

“I have given the deal my blessing — if they get it done that’s great, if they don’t that’s OK too,” Trump told reporters Saturday, according to CNBC.

A statement on the department’s website says it will delay its prohibition on TikTok until Sept. 27 “in light of recent positive developments.”

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