WeChat users in USA who download the app for personal or business communications will not be affected by Donald Trump’s ban that prohibits transactions with the app. The US Department of Commerce will clarify by September 20 which specific transactions will be prohibited but it is unlikely to impose criminal or civil liability on such users, according to a government filing in a federal San Francisco court. This development was first reported by TechCrunch.
The US WeChat Users Alliance is seeking a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order, claiming that the order violates the First Amendment and unfairly targets the American-Chinese community.
“While the Department of Commerce continues to review a range of transactions, including those that could directly or indirectly impact use of the WeChat app, we can provide assurances that the Secretary does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection with WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transactions in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users. In other words, while use of the app for such communications could be directly or indirectly impaired through measures targeted at other transactions, use and downloading of the app for this limited purpose will not be a defined transaction,and such users will not be targeted or subject to penalties.”
— US Department of Justice filing [emphasis ours]
The US WeChat Users Alliance, a non-profit group, said that Trump’s August 6 executive order would snap a primary channel of communication that many Americans use to communication with friends and family in China. Moreover, the fact that the US government will allow personal and business use of WeChat “flies in the face of their entire rationale” of banning it in the first place, according to the users’ group.
Trump’s August 6 executive orders banning transactions with TikTok and WeChat citing national security concerns created confusion since the orders failed to specify which transactions would be prohibited.
This confusion led to another lawsuit by TikTok employee Patrick Ryan who sough a restraining order against the Trump administration and an injunction against Trump’s August 6 order. On Tuesday, the US government, via the Department of Justice, said Trump’s order would not be interpreted “in a manner which would prohibit the payment of wages and/or salaries to Plaintiff or any other employee or contractor of TikTok”. The DOJ’s letter came a day before Ryan’s request for a restraining order was to be argued.
TikTok and WeChat are essentially collateral damage in the geopolitical battle. In India, both WeChat and TikTok were banned in the first round of ‘Chinese’ apps to be banned, after the border face-off at Ladakh, citing national security. The block was ordered under Section 69A of the Indian IT Act, that allows the government to block access to any information “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above”.
Earlier this month, days after another clash between Indian and Chinese armies at the border, the government blocked another 118 apps with origins in China, including gaming app PUBG. The Indian government has so far banned 224 ‘Chinese apps’.