The Trump administration had planned effectively to ban WeChat and fellow Chinese-owned app TikTok in the United States late Sunday by preventing them from appearing in mobile-phone app stores.
The Commerce Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The now-delayed bans stemmed from a pair of executive orders Trump issued Aug. 6, declaring that both apps posed threats to national security because they collected “vast swaths” of data on Americans and other users, and offered the Chinese Communist Party avenues for censoring or distorting information.
WeChat had about 3.3 million monthly active users in the United States as of August, according to analytics provider App Annie. It is a common tool for Chinese speakers in the United States to communicate with friends and relatives in China, because most Western communication apps, including Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, are banned in China.
The short-form video app TikTok has been downloaded an estimated 100 million times by users in the United States.
A group called the WeChat Users Alliance filed suit in federal court last month seeking to stop a ban, arguing that the app represents a virtual public square for Chinese speakers in the United States and that banning it would harm free speech. The Trump administration announced details of the proposed ban Friday.
“The court grants the motion on the ground that the plaintiffs have shown serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote in the order granting the preliminary injunction.
“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,” the judge added.
“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 judge wrote.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael Bien, welcomed the ruling, saying the proposed ban “targets the Chinese American community and trampled on their First Amendment guaranteed freedoms to speak, to worship, to read and react to the press, and to organize and associate for numerous purposes.”
WeChat has been described as the Swiss army knife of apps, allowing users to pay bills, order food, book travel, read news and shop online. In their arguments against the ban, the plaintiffs noted that for many elderly Chinese in the United States who don’t speak English well, WeChat is the only option for communication. In her ruling, Beeler said the evidence presented so far upholds the view “that WeChat is effectively the only means of communication for many in the community.”
Within China, WeChat is heavily censored. Posts about Chinese politics — and many other topics — disappear from the app. Chinese authorities have used WeChat to monitor political dissidents and other critics, some of whom have been detained by police or sentenced to prison for their posts on the platform.
When Chinese speakers abroad use the app to read news, they are reading and browsing in a heavily censored news ecosystem, helping Beijing shape communities and conversations.
And in research published this year, the University of Toronto showed that WeChat was subjecting users outside of China to surveillance to train algorithms used to censor information at home.
“WeChat users outside of China may think that WeChat’s political censorship and surveillance system does not affect them. However, in new research we show that files and images shared by WeChat users with accounts outside of China are subject to political surveillance, and this content is used to train and build up the censorship system that WeChat uses to censor China-registered users,” researchers from the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy wrote.
Reacting to that report, Chinese technology group Tencent, which owns WeChat, said that “all content shared among international users of WeChat is private,” according to a statement provided by Meredith Julian of the public relations firm Brunswick Group.
Tencent last week called the proposed ban “unfortunate” and said it “has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security.”
The proposed TikTok ban also has been criticized on First Amendment grounds.
The Washington Post reported last year that TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance, imposed strict rules on what type of content could appear on the app in keeping with China’s restrictive view of acceptable speech. Former employees of TikTok’s U.S. offices told The Post that they were instructed to follow rules set by managers at ByteDance’s headquarters, such as demoting and removing certain content related to social and political topics.
Under a separate executive order issued last month, ByteDance has until Nov. 12 to complete a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. A preliminary deal outlined by ByteDance and Oracle on Saturday stops short of a sale but would change the structure of the company and give Oracle and the retailer Walmart a combined 20 percent stake in a new TikTok Global entity that would be headquartered in the United States.
Oracle said in a news release Saturday that it would take a 12.5 percent stake in the new entity and would become TikTok’s “secure cloud technology provider.” Walmart said it has “tentatively” agreed to take a 7.5 percent stake.