US judge approves injunction to delay WeChat restrictions

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Icons for the smartphone apps TikTok and WeChat are seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of the consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge has approved a request from a group of WeChat users to delay looming U.S. government restrictions that could effectively make the popular app nearly impossible to use.

In a ruling dated Saturday, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in California said the government’s actions would affect users’ First Amendment rights as an effective ban on the app removes their platform for communication.

WeChat is a messaging-focused app popular with many Chinese-speaking Americans that serves as a lifeline to friends, family, customers and business contacts in China. It’s owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

A group of WeChat users had made the request after the U.S. Commerce Department said Friday it would bar WeChat from U.S. app stores and keep it from accessing essential internet services in the country, beginning Sunday night at 11:59 p.m.

The government cited national security and data-privacy concerns in taking action against WeChat and imposing similar restrictions on TikTok, another popular Chinese-owned app. The restrictions on TikTok were pushed back by a week Saturday after President Donald Trump said he supported a proposed deal that would make TikTok a U.S. company.

WeChat users had argued the moves targeting the all-in-one app with instant-messaging, social media and other communication tools would restrict free speech.

In the ruling, the court said that a WeChat ban “eliminates all meaningful access to communication in the plaintiffs’ community,” and that an injunction would be in public interest.

The U.S. government had earlier argued that it is not restricting free speech because WeChat users still “are free to speak on alternative platforms that do not pose a national security threat.”

Specific evidence about WeChat posing a national security threat was also “modest,” according to Judge Beeler.

The dispute over the two apps is the latest flashpoint in the rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies, as the Trump administration attempts to counter the influence of China.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment.

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