Friday, March 5

WeChat judge unlikely to let ban go forward amid US appeal


A judge said she’s unlikely to allow the US to implement prohibitions on WeChat while the government appeals her earlier ruling blocking them.

US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said at a hearing Thursday that she wasn’t inclined to grant the government’s request for a stay pending appeal. The additional evidence the Justice Department provided to support its national security concerns hasn’t changed her analysis that the prohibitions would violate the free-speech rights of millions of Chinese-speaking Americans who depend on the app, Beeler said.

The San Francisco judge didn’t issue a final decision on the government’s request at the hearing. The Justice Department separately has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco to put Beeler’s preliminary injunction on hold during the appellate process.

The Trump administration wants to remove WeChat from mobile app stores in the US and impose other restrictions that the US users say amount to an outright ban. According to the administration, WeChat’s owner, Tencent Holdings Ltd., is intertwined with the Chinese Communist Party, which can use the app to collect users’ data and spy on them.

The amount of data that the CCP can obtain about US WeChat users, including doctor appointments and medical data, is massive, Serena Orloff, a Justice Department lawyer, said at the hearing.

“It generates a digital facsimile of a person’s life,” Orloff said.

Beeler blocked the prohibitions issued by the US Commerce Department on September 20, the day they were supposed to go into effect. The judge agreed with the US users that the restrictions were likely to violate the First Amendment rights of the users who rely on it almost exclusively for many aspects of their lives.

The Chinese-language “super app,” which has messaging, social media and mobile payment functions, has 19 million regular users in the US and 1 billion worldwide.

The WeChat users, as well as ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, another Chinese-owned mobile app targeted by the Trump administration over purported national security concerns, have argued that the U.S. bans have been motivated by election-year politics rather than genuine security concerns.

The case is US WeChat Users Alliance v. Trump, 3:20-cv-5910, U.S. District Court, District of Northern California (San Francisco).