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U.S. judge denies new government bid to remove China's WeChat from U.S. app stores

10/23/2020 | 07:08pm EST
FILE PHOTO: Illustration picture of Wechat app on a mobile phone

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge in San Francisco on Friday rejected a Justice Department request to reverse a decision that allowed Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google to continue to offer Chinese-owned WeChat for download in U.S. app stores.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said the government's new evidence did not change her opinion about the Tencent app. As it has with Chinese video app TikTok, the Justice Department has argued WeChat threatens national security.

WeChat has an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States. It is popular among Chinese students, Americans living in China and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.

WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.

The Justice Department has appealed Beeler's decision permitting the continued use of the Chinese mobile app to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but no ruling is likely before December.

In a suit brought by WeChat users, Beeler last month blocked a U.S. Commerce Department order set to take effect on Sept. 20 that would have required the app to be removed from U.S. app stores.

The Commerce Department order would also bar other U.S. transactions with WeChat, potentially making the app unusable in the United States.

"The record does not support the conclusion that the government has 'narrowly tailored' the prohibited transactions to protect its national-security interests," Beeler wrote on Friday.

She said the evidence "supports the conclusion that the restrictions 'burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government's legitimate interests.'"

WeChat users argued the government sought "an unprecedented ban of an entire medium of communication" and offered only "speculation" of harm from Americans' use of WeChat.

In a similar case, a U.S. appeals court agreed to fast-track a government appeal of a ruling blocking the government from banning new downloads from U.S. app stores of Chinese-owned short video-sharing app TikTok.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Cynthia Osterman)

By David Shepardson

© Reuters 2020
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