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

A group of WeChat users argues that a ban would restrict their free speech

Updated 16th October 2020 | 08:27 IST

A judge in San Francisco said Thursday she’s unlikely to lift a short lived block on the US government’s attempts to ban WeChat. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler skilled the Trump administration’s request for a stay of her September 20th preliminary injunction, which prevents the govt from halting new downloads of WeChat within the US and from blocking transactions associated with the app.

Beeler didn’t issue a ruling Thursday but said the govt had not presented new evidence to influence her that there have been significant national security concerns with allowing WeChat to stay active within the US. Beeler said in her September 20th order that a gaggle 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 therefore the National Emergencies Act. But a gaggle of users calling themselves the WeChat Users Alliance — not officially connected to WeChat or parent company Tencent.

There is no alternative app that does everything WeChat does, the group argues, saying the “super app” is that the primary way Chinese speakers within the US participate in social life and receive news and knowledge, 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 employed by police departments within the US to tell users about testing locations, organize the delivery of medical supplies, and allowed families to remain in touch with elderly relatives in nursing homes, the alliance says.

But the govt considers WeChat parent company Tencent a security risk. Tencent can collect a “digital facsimile of a person’s life” on WeChat, Department of Justice attorney Serena Orloff said at Thursday’s hearing, furthering the administration’s argument that Tencent is just too closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party .

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

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