Technology

Judge halts Trump administration order banning WeChat from Apple and Google app stores

The Tencent Holdings Ltd. WeChat app is displayed in the App Store on a smartphone in an arranged photograph taken in Arlington, Virginia, on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A U.S. judge in California halted the Trump administration’s ban on downloads of the Chinese-owned app WeChat early Sunday.

The move blocks the Commerce Department from forcing Apple and Alphabet‘s Google to remove Tencent Holding’s WeChat for downloads by Sunday evening.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in California said in an order that WeChat users who filed a lawsuit “have shown serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim, the balance of hardships tips in the plaintiffs favor.”

Beeler’s preliminary injunction also blocked the Commerce order that would have barred other transactions with WeChat in the United States that could have degraded the site’s usability for current U.S. users.

The U.S. Commerce Department and the White House did not immediately comment.

The Commerce Department announced Friday morning that it will ban U.S. business transactions with Chinese-owned social apps WeChat and TikTok on Sunday.

Read more: Trump to block downloads of TikTok, WeChat on Sunday

Commerce Department officials who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity Friday explained the next steps for WeChat users in the United States. The ban would have rendered the app largely dysfunctional for those who had already downloaded it.

“Users will experience some dysfunction and latency to the point where there will be an outage or a message or something will timeout. So, we do expect it may be usable but it may not be particularly functional after Sunday,” a Commerce Department official said.

Commerce Department officials also said on a call with reporters that they were preparing for a long legal battle.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump said he approved a deal in which Oracle and Walmart will partner with the viral video-sharing app TikTok, allowing the popular app to avoid a shutdown. 

The Trump administration said in July, amid deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, that they were looking at banning TikTok as well as other Chinese social media apps, citing national security concerns.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in August that the administration was scrutinizing TikTok as akin to Chinese state-backed tech companies Huawei and ZTE, which he has previously described as “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.”

The nation’s top diplomat also added that the State Department would work with the Commerce Department as well as the Defense Department to limit the ability of Chinese cloud service providers to collect, store, and process data in the United States.

U.S. officials have long complained that Chinese intellectual property theft has cost the economy billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs and threatens national security. Beijing maintains it does not engage in intellectual property theft.

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