WeChat users in US renew bid to block Trump ban of app

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) – WeChat users in the US revived their request in court to block the Trump administration’s restrictions on the Chinese-owned messaging app, ahead of a Sunday (Sept 20) deadline to remove it from American stores.

The US WeChat Users Alliance is trying again as directed by a San Francisco judge after the Commerce Department issued a detailed description Friday of what transactions will be prohibited. The judge is set to consider the group’s arguments at a hearing Saturday at 1.30 pm California time.

WeChat will have to end payments through its service as of Sunday and will be prohibited from getting technical services from vendors, according to the Commerce Department. Downloads of the app will also be barred as of Sunday. But the government said users won’t be penalised for personal and business communications.

“This is nothing more than an unprecedented prior restraint on protected speech, on the press, on the right to assemble and petition the government and the free exercise of religion,” the group said in its new request to halt the ban. “It is anything but ‘narrowly tailored;’ it is a sledge hammer.”

US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said the users group’s earlier request to block the president’s Aug 6 executive order was too vague and mooted by the government’s announcement of the specific scope of the restrictions aimed at WeChat and its Chinese parent company, Tencent Holdings Ltd.

The users’ group said the Commerce Department’s explanation of prohibited use doesn’t address its concerns.

“The prohibitions of the Executive Order, including the imposition of criminal and civil penalties, without additional notice, are effective on Sunday, but what acts are prohibited and by whom, remain vague and unclear,” they said.

The administration has said the ban is driven by national security concerns about the Chinese government’s ability to access data through the app. Mr Trump has separately barred people in the US from doing business with TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance Ltd.

The Justice Department urged the judge not to grant the users’ request, saying in a filing Friday the national security and foreign policy interests at issue are readily apparent and compelling.

The users don’t “dispute that Tencent, and by extension WeChat, is intertwined with the Chinese Communist Party, subject to draconian Chinese laws which require that companies turn over data to officials with minimal judicial recourse (if any), and more critically, is well recognised as working to advance the Chinese Government’s aims over propaganda, censorship, surveillance and misinformation both inside and outside China,” government lawyers wrote in the filing.

The WeChat users’ group has said that Mr Trump’s order is driven by election-year politics.

“What we have feared has happened,” the group said in a statement. “Despite the public ‘assurances’ provided by the Department of Justice to the court on Wednesday that individual users will not be affected, the US government is banning WeChat completely.”

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