Image: Tencent

The Chinese-owned WeChat messaging app narrowly escaped a threatened ban in the US on Sunday courtesy of a US district court ruling.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Responding to a lawsuit filed by WeChat users, US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler ruled on Saturday against a ban ordered by the Trump administration that would have rendered WeChat unavailable and inaccessible.

Arguing that WeChat collects personal information from users that it can then share with the Chinese Communist government, the Department of Commerce had directed that the app be prohibited from all downloads across US app stores starting Sunday.

The move by the administration also would have stopped any software or services from using any code or features from the app and prevented WeChat users from transferring funds or processing payments via the app. Taken together, the actions would have killed any use of WeChat in the United States as of Sept. 20.

Following a presidential executive order on Aug. 6 announcing the ban, the US WeChat Users Alliance filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against such an action. In this motion, the group claimed that the ban would violate the First Amendment and Fifth Amendment as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that it was an unlawful exercise of the authority of President Trump and Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross under the International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA), and that it violated the Administrative Procedures Act because Ross exceeded his authority under the IEEPA.

In explaining her ruling against the ban, Judge Beeler agreed with the WeChat Users Alliance on some areas, most notably the First Amendment issue.

The judge found that the ban would hinder access to communication among Chinese Americans and Chinese-speaking people in the US. Such groups rely on WeChat as their primary source of communication and commerce, according to the plaintiffs. Therefore, restricting the app in the way the ban proposed would restrain the right of free speech to its users. The ruling even cited the case of one of the plaintiffs, who described certain hardships for herself and other users should the app no longer be accessible.

“First, the plaintiffs have established irreparable harm,” Judge Beeler said in the ruling. “The immediate threat is the elimination of their platform for communication, which results in irreparable injury absent an injunction. (‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, even for minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’)”

The ban itself also was considered too vague or generalized to address the government’s claims about WeChat being a threat to national security, according to the ruling. In the court’s opinion, the administration failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify its order. Though Judge Beeler said the general evidence about China being a threat to US security is considerable, any specific evidence presented about WeChat itself was modest.

“Certainly the government’s overarching national-security interest is significant,” the judge said in the ruling. “But on this record β€” while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national-security concerns β€” it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”

However, the administration isn’t taking the judge’s ruling lying down. On Monday, The US Commerce Department said that it would challenge the order.

“Prohibiting the identified transactions is necessary to protect the national security of the United States, and the department expects to soon seek relief from this order,” the Commerce Department said in a statement shared with Reuters.

How is this battle likely to play out? Financial technology and investing expert Richard Smith shares his thoughts about the ban and how it may evolve.

“Do the First Amendment rights of US citizens permit them the right to use technology that is clearly surveilled and censored by a hostile foreign government? It’s a fair question,” Smith told TechRepublic. “Does the US government have a duty and obligation to protect free speech in our democracy? That’s a better question.”

“The temporary halting of Trump’s WeChat ban recently issued by Judge Laurel Beeler of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is unlikely to stand,” Smith added. “If it does stand, the Trump administration is likely to continue to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, where it will likely prevail. History is on the side of Trump here and Trump can and will continue to make life very uncomfortable for WeChat in the United States.”

Owned by Tencent, WeChat is a messaging and calling app though which people can stay in touch with friends, play games together, and send or receive mobile payments via the WeChat Pay feature. In the US, WeChat has 19 million daily active users, according to analytics firm Apptopia. Worldwide, the app counts more than 1 billion users.

This article has been updated.