A U.S. judge has barred the Trump administration from effectively shutting down the China-based messaging app WeChat, citing the free-speech rights of users and casting doubt on the government’s national security concerns.
The Commerce Department issued an order on Friday requiring Apple and Google to remove WeChat and Chinese social media app TikTok from their app stores by midnight Sunday.
But hours before the deadline, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler granted WeChat’s request for a preliminary injunction, finding that WeChat users who sued the Trump administration had “shown serious questions going to the merits of their First Amendment claim.”
“WeChat is effectively the only means of communication for many in the [Chinese] community, not only because China bans other apps, but also because Chinese speakers with limited English proficiency have no options other than WeChat,” she noted.
The Commerce Department late Saturday gave TikTok a one-week delay after Trump approved an investment in the app by Oracle and Walmart that he said would resolve his national security concerns.
The White House had announced in July that amid deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, it was seeking to ban TikTok as well as other Chinese social media apps for national security reasons.
The Justice Department said blocking the WeChat order would “frustrate and displace the president’s determination of how best to address threats to national security.”
But Judge Beeler ruled that the government had presented “scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses [its national security] concerns. 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.”
The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, which filed the suit, called the ruling “an important and hard-fought victory” against an order that was “a serious violation of the constitutional rights of WeChat users in the U.S.”
WeChat has been downloaded nearly 22 million times in the United States since 2014, or about 7% of its downloads outside China.