Judge halts WeChat download ban in US-China tech battle

NEWYORK• A US judge on Sunday blocked the government’s ban on WeChat downloads, hours before it was due to take effect in an ongoing technology and espionage battle between Washington and Beijing.

The Trump administration had ordered a ban on downloads of the messaging platform WeChat as well as hugely popular video-sharing app TikTok, both owned by Chinese companies. Both bans have now been suspended.

A California court ruling said it granted a “motion for a nationwide injunction against the implementation” of the government order on WeChat, with the judge citing concerns over free speech.

The order would have slowed WeChat down and made it unusable in the US for video chats with family and friends, according to experts.

Owned by technology giant Tencent Holdings Ltd, WeChat has around 19 million active daily users in the US.

When contacted by AFP, Tencent declined to comment on the ruling. The ruling “is a short-term relief for the plaintiffs, who wanted to be sure that the app was not shut down tonight”, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. If the government appeals and wins, the plaintiffs can appeal that decision. “The plaintiffs wanted to just buy time,” Tobias said. “It may be very soon that the president is no longer the president.”

As President Donald Trump seeks a breakthrough with voters to win a second term in the Nov 3 election, he has increasingly put national security and his aggressive stance toward China at the centre of his campaign.

He regularly accuses Democratic opponent Joe Biden of weakness toward Beijing.

The president said on Saturday that he had approved a deal allowing Silicon Valley giant Oracle Corp to become data partner for TikTok to avert a shutdown of that app.

The deal, announced by the companies, includes Walmart Inc as a commercial partner and would create a new US company named TikTok Global.

TikTok — owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd — confirmed the Oracle agreement, which came as companies raced against the Sunday deadline.

The US Department of Commerce on Saturday announced it was postponing the ban on TikTok downloads until Sept 27, due to “recent positive developments”.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last Friday accused China of using the two apps “to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US”.

In early August, Trump gave ByteDance until Sept 20 to hand over TikTok’s US operations to an American company.

TikTok’s brand of short, quirky phone videos has become a global phenomenon, especially among young people, with 100 million users in the US alone.

China on Saturday condemned US “bullying”, saying it violated international trade norms and that there was no evidence of any security threat.

It also launched its long-expected “unreliable entities list,” seen as a weapon for Beijing to retaliate against the US. — AFP