WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (Reuters) – A U.S. judge blocked the Department of Commerce early Sunday from requiring Apple and Alphabet Google to remove China’s WeChat messaging app for download by the end of Sunday.
U.S. Judge Laurel Beeler of San Francisco said in an order that WeChat users who filed the lawsuit “showed serious questions regarding the merits of the First Amendment lawsuit, the balance of difficulties in favor of the plaintiffs.”
On Friday, the Commerce Department issued an order citing national security grounds to block the app from U.S. app stores owned by Tencent Holding, and the Justice Department urged Beeler not to block the order.
Beeler’s advance order also blocks a commercial order that would prohibit other transactions with WeChat in the United States that could impair the site’s usability for current users in the United States. The US Department of Commerce did not comment immediately.
WeChat has an average of 19 million active users daily in the United States, analyst companies Apptopia said in early August. It is popular with Chinese students, Americans living in China, and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.
The justice ministry said blocking the order would “frustrate and displace the president’s determination on how best to respond to threats to national security”. But Beeler said, “While the general evidence for the national security threat to China (in terms of technology and mobile technology) is significant, the concrete evidence for WeChat is modest.”
She added: “The regulation – which eliminates a channel of communication without any obvious substitutes – loads significantly more speech than is needed to boost the government’s significant interest.”
WeChat is a mobile application that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of everyday life for many people in China and boasts over 1 billion users.
The WeChat Consumers Alliance, which filed the lawsuit, praised the decision “as an important and tenacious victory” for “millions of WeChat users in the United States.”
Michael Bien, a consumer lawyer, said: “The United States has never ruled out a major communication platform, even during the war. There are serious problems with the First Amendment with the WeChat ban, which is aimed at the Sino-US community. “
He added the order “trampled by their First Amendment guarantees the freedom to speak, worship, read and respond to the press, as well as to organize and associate for multiple purposes.”