WeChat users in US sue Donald Trump over order banning Chinese messaging app
- Plaintiffs claim restriction violates their freedom of speech, free exercise of religion and other constitutional rights
- Chinese owners of TikTok, which is also facing a ban, say they plan to mount a legal challenge against president’s executive order
The complaint, filed on Friday in San Francisco, is being brought by the non-profit organisation US WeChat Users Alliance and others who say they rely on the app for work, worship and staying in touch with relatives in China. The plaintiffs say they are not affiliated with WeChat or its parent company, Tencent Holdings.
In the lawsuit, they asked a federal court judge to stop Trump’s executive order from being enforced, claiming it would violate its US users’ freedom of speech, free exercise of religion and other constitutional rights.
“We think there’s a first amendment interest in providing continued access to that app and its functionality to the Chinese-American community,” Michael Bien, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said on Saturday.
The twin executive orders – one for each app – are expected to take effect on September 20, 45 days after they were issued. The orders call on US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is also named as a defendant in the US WeChat Users Alliance lawsuit, to define the banned dealings by that time.
It remains unclear what the orders will mean for the apps’ millions of users in the US, but experts have said they appear intended to bar WeChat and TikTok from the app stores run by Apple and Google. That would make them more difficult to use in the US.
“The first thing we’re going to seek is a postponement of the implementation of the penalties and sanctions – a reasonable period of time between explaining what the rules are and punishing people for not complying with them,” Bien said.
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, said on Saturday it planned to mount a legal challenge against Trump’s executive order.
WeChat, which has more than 1 billion users, is less well-known than TikTok to Americans without a connection to China.
Mobile research firm Sensor Tower estimates the app has been downloaded about 19 million times in the US. It is crucial infrastructure for Chinese students and residents in the US to connect with friends and family in China and for anyone who does business with China.
Within China, WeChat is censored and expected to adhere to content restrictions set by authorities. The Citizen Lab internet watchdog group in Toronto said WeChat monitored files and images shared abroad to aid its censorship in China.
Even so, the US WeChat Users Alliance complaint argued that losing access to the app would harm millions of people in the US who relied on it, saying it was the only app with an interface designed for Chinese speakers.
“Since the executive order, numerous users, including plaintiffs, have scrambled to seek alternatives without success. They are now afraid that by merely communicating with their families, they may violate the law and face sanctions,” according to the complaint.