The Department of Justice filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit challenging a preliminary injunction won by WeChat users, which stalls President Trump’s executive order effectively banning WeChat from U.S. app stores. Magistrate Judge Laura Beeler of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California temporarily blocked the executive order days before it was to take effect.
WeChat, a subsidiary of Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., is a messaging service with sprawling features. The app allows users to video chat, transfer money, make in-store payments, share photos, and access third-party services, such as ride-hailing and food delivery. WeChat is one of the few tech bridges between the U.S. and China, and it allows the Chinese diaspora to communicate with friends and family in China. Like other Chinese internet services, however, WeChat is subject to censorship and can serve as a vehicle for propaganda.
The executive order banning WeChat stems from a 2019 national emergency declared by President Trump with respect to the “information and communications technology and services supply chain.” The President announced that foreign adversaries were creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in communications technology, constituting an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security. President Trump’s August 2020 executive order targeting WeChat stated that the app’s data collection and censorship pose such a threat. The President cited his authority under the International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA) and the National Emergencies Act to implement the ban.
Judge Beeler granted the preliminary injunction halting WeChat’s ban because the plaintiffs raised significant First Amendment claims. The opinion reasoned that banning “an entire medium of public expression” could amount to restraint of free speech and is not “narrowly tailored to address the government’s significant interest in national security.”
TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, won a preliminary injunction challenging its own ban from U.S. app stores on different grounds. TikTok successfully argued that the President likely exceeded his authority under the IEEPA in banning the app, which does not grant the authority to restrict “exchanges of information materials.”
While WeChat’s challenge to the executive order continues, WeChat will likely remain essential to many Chinese speakers in the U.S. In an interview with the New York Times, one WeChat user stated that if the app were banned, she would use a virtual private network (VPN) to access WeChat from the U.S. Chinese emigres are often familiar with VPNs, as they are commonly used to access websites like Google, Instagram, and Wikipedia from China.