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Security

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

A judge in San Francisco said Thursday she’s not likely to lift a temporary block on the US government’s attempts to ban WeChat. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler responded to the Trump administration’s request for a stay of her September 20th preliminary injunction, which prevents the government from halting new downloads of WeChat in the US and from blocking transactions related to the app.

Beeler did not issue a ruling Thursday but said the government had not presented new evidence to persuade her that there were significant national security concerns with allowing WeChat to remain active in the US. Beeler said in her September 20th order that a group 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 the National Emergencies Act. But a group of users calling themselves the WeChat Users Alliance — not officially connected to WeChat or parent company Tencent — says banning the app in the US would violate users’ free speech rights, and such a ban specifically targets Chinese Americans.

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

But the government considers WeChat parent company Tencent a security risk. Tencent can collect a “digital facsimile of a person’s life” on WeChat, Justice Department attorney Serena Orloff said at Thursday’s hearing, furthering the administration’s argument that Tencent is too closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. Orloff argued there are other apps that provide similar functions to WeChat that were widely available.

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

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Tech News

Time is running out on TikTok, WeChat downloads on iPhones and Android phones

While we await word of a sale or some kind of a compromise, the popular TikTok and WeChat mobile apps will be removed from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store at midnight on Monday, September 21. The announcement follows months of jockeying and negotiations after the Trump Administration put the two apps on notice for allegedly collecting personal data from U.S. citizens and funneling it to the Chinese government.

Tencent, which owns WeChat, would also be prohibited partnering with another company to offer “internet hosting, content delivery networks, internet transit or peering services to WeChat, or using the app’s code in other software or services in the United States,” according to the New York Times. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the ban is intended to completely shut down WeChat in the U.S. beginning Monday.

TikTok will still be allowed to function until November 12 for anyone who previously downloaded the app. The stay is presumably to work out the terms of a potential sale.

Oracle is still in talks with owner ByteDance over a sale of the video-sharing app TikTok, but WeChat is far more ingrained in the Chinese landscape. Operating under the name Weixin in China, WeChat is a messaging, payment, and social media service used by millions of users in the U.S. and more than a billion worldwide.

While the ban wouldn’t have a huge impact on WeChat’s global operations, it’s unclear what effect the ban would have on Tencent’s other holdings, including stakes in Epic Games, Ubisoft, Reddit, and Universal Music Group. Also unclear is whether Google and Apple will take action against Trump for wielding power over its app stores.

Ross said the move is designed to protect U.S. users: “What they collect are data on locality, data on what you are streaming toward, what your preferences are, what you are referencing, every bit of behavior that the American side is indulging in becomes available to whoever is watching on the other side,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to squelch.”

Android users may be able to still download the TikTok and WeChat APKs after Sunday’s deadline, though it’s unclear whether the respective companies will still update them in the U.S. And with a ban on hosting as well, important pieces of WeChat, such as messaging and payments, will be all but unusable.

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Categories
Security

Judge again blocks Trump administration push to ban WeChat in the US

A judge in California has rejected a request from the Department of Justice to reverse a previous decision allowing WeChat to remain active in US app stores. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said new evidence the government presented did not change her opinion about the messaging app, owned by Chinese company Tencent app. WeChat will remain active in US app stores for the time being.

“The record does not support the conclusion that the government has ‘narrowly tailored’ the prohibited transactions to protect its national-security interests,” Beeler wrote in her decision. The evidence “supports the conclusion that the restrictions ‘burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.’” President Trump issued an executive order in August to ban WeChat, invoking the Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.

The administration also sought to ban video sharing app TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, on the same grounds, and President Trump demanded the company be sold. But rather than a sale, a tentative agreement made Oracle TikTok’s trusted technology partner in the US, and created a new entity called TikTok Global. The deal has not yet been finalized. On September 27th, US District Judge Carl Nichols granted a preliminary injunction against a ban on new downloads of TikTok in the US hours before it would have taken effect.

Tencent can collect a “digital facsimile of a person’s life” on WeChat, Justice Department attorney Serena Orloff said at a hearing earlier this month, furthering the administration’s position that Tencent is connected to the Chinese Communist Party.

Beeler’s earlier order blocked the Commerce Department ban of US transactions on WeChat. And while the government claimed it has identified “significant” threats to national security, Beeler did not appear persuaded. She said in her September 20th order that a group of WeChat users calling themselves the WeChat Alliance had demonstrated there were “serious questions” about whether the ban would potentially violate their First Amendment rights.

The group, which is not officially connected to WeChat, said there is no alternative app that can do everything WeChat does, and argued it is the primary way for Chinese speakers in the US to connect with family in China as well as receive information locally. WeChat has some 19 million US users and 1 billion users globally.

The Justice Department has appealed Beeler’s decision to the Ninth Circuit, but a decision is not expected before December.

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