New York, United States:
A U.S. judge blocked the government’s ban on WeChat downloads on Sunday, hours before it took effect in an ongoing tech and espionage battle between Washington and Beijing.
The Trump administration had ordered a ban on downloads of the WeChat messaging platform as well as the highly popular video-sharing app TikTok, both owned by Chinese companies. Both bans have now been suspended.
A California court ruling said it had granted a “motion for a national injunction against the implementation” of the government’s WeChat order, with the judge citing concerns about free speech.
The command would have slowed WeChat down and rendered it unusable in the United States for video chats with family and friends, experts say.
Owned by tech giant TenCent, WeChat has approximately 19 million active daily users in the United States.
As President Donald Trump seeks a breakthrough with voters to win a second term in the Nov. 3 election, he has increasingly placed national security and his aggressive stance on China at the center of his campaign.
He regularly accuses Democratic opponent Joe Biden of weakness towards Beijing.
The president said on Saturday that he had approved a deal allowing Silicon Valley giant Oracle to become TikTok’s data partner in order to avoid the app shutdown.
The deal, announced by the companies, includes Walmart as a business partner and would create a new US company called TikTok Global.
– A threat to national security? –
TikTok – owned by Chinese ByteDance – confirmed the Oracle deal, which came as companies rushed against Sunday’s deadline.
The US Department of Commerce said on Saturday it was postponing the ban on TikTok downloads until September 27, due to “recent positive developments.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Friday accused China of using the two apps “to threaten US national security, foreign policy and economy.”
WeChat is “primarily used by Chinese who visit or work here or by Chinese Americans who keep in touch with loved ones,” said William Reinsch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
This includes several hundred thousand Chinese students in the United States, who use it for daily online conversations.
Trump has often claimed, without providing evidence, that TikTok and WeChat collect data on users in Beijing.
At the beginning of August, he gave ByteDance until September 20 to sell TikTok’s US operations to a US company.
TikTok’s brand of short, original phone videos has become a global phenomenon, especially among young people, with 100 million users in the United States alone.
China condemned the US “harassment” on Saturday, saying it violated international trade standards and there was no evidence of a security threat.
China has also launched its long-awaited “list of unreliable entities” seen as a weapon for Beijing to retaliate against the United States.
The Trump administration has used its own “list of entities” to exclude Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the US market, in addition to recent action against TikTok and WeChat.
US officials have described Washington’s crackdown as essential to guarding against potential Chinese espionage via the platforms.
According to the US Treasury, the TikTok deal has yet to be finalized by the companies involved and approved by a federal national security committee.