As negotiations continue on the sale of TikTok, a US judge has also halted the White House’s Executive Order which would have seen Chinese-owned messaging platform WeChat removed from US app stores on Sunday.
In its original Executive Order, the US Government ruled that both TikTok and WeChat would be removed from US app stores on September 20th due to national security concerns, with the Chinese-owned apps believed to be sharing data on US users with the Chinese Government.
Due to ongoing negotiations between TikTok and Oracle, the Commerce Department awarded TikTok an extension to September 27th, enabling it to avoid app store removal, but WeChat was still scheduled to be removed on Sunday, as per the original ruling.
But on Saturday, US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler ruled that the WeChat ban could not go ahead, due to lack of evidence in relation to the concern that the app is a threat to national security.
As per Judge Beeler:
“While the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China (regarding technology and mobile technology) is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest”.
WeChat is reportedly used by nearly 20 million people US, and is also accepted as a payment method by many businesses. WeChat is a key connection platform in China, where the vast majority of its 1.2 billion users are based, and while it is beholden to China’s cybersecurity laws, which do indeed state that Chinese companies need to share user data with the CCP on request, the actual evidence of it having done so is still not clear.
In its response to the ruling, the US Justice Department argued that by blocking the executive order, that action would “displace the President’s determination of how best to address threats to national security”. But Judge Beeler, again, noted limited evidence in support of the ban – which could also extend to TikTok, if negotiations over the sale of the platform end up falling through.
TikTok has also been accused of both gathering data on US citizens and distributing pro-China propaganda, but as with WeChat, the evidence on both fronts is limited, with no definitive legal grounds to support a full ban. As such, the ruling on WeChat could prove to be of broader significance, and could eventually lead to a larger battle with the US Government, if, in fact, the details of the Oracle/TikTok deal cannot be refined to meet the White House’s requirements.
It’s another wrinkle in the simmering battle between the US and China, with social platforms now caught in the middle. And while WeChat doesn’t have the mainstream presence that TikTok does in the US, the details of the court’s ruling raise significant questions about due process on the White House’s part.
And that could, eventually, lead to a bigger conflict over such actions.