Trump's ban on WeChat won't affect the app's users, Justice Department says

People unaffiliated with the app-maker sued Trump on grounds that his executive order is unconstitutional.

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US government says "at present" it doesn't plan to prosecute WeChat users for downloading or using the app.

Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Trump administration's looming ban on WeChat won't target people who use or download the Chinese-owned app, the  administration said in a filing Wednesday. The government's filing came in response to a lawsuit filed in August by a group of WeChat users who aren't affiliated with the company behind the app and argued that President Donald Trump's ban is unconstitutional.

Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 6 banning US transactions on WeChat, calling the messaging app owned by Chinese giant TenCent a "significant" threat to national security. The user group's lawsuit sought a restraining order against the executive order, calling it "vaguely worded" and saying it fails to provide evidence that WeChat poses a threat to US national security.

The Justice Department said in the filing it had notified the WeChat users that their use of the app wasn't prohibited by the order, without addressing the concerns central to their legal challenge.

"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," the administration said in a filing with the Northern California District Court (see below). 

"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."

The WeChat users' Aug. 23 lawsuit said Trump's order "targets and silences WeChat users, the overwhelming majority of whom are members of the Chinese and Chinese-speaking communities," the complaint says. "It regulates constitutionally protected speech, expression, and association and is not narrowly tailored to restrict only that speech which presents national security risks to the United States."

The WeChat users group responded by saying the administration's filing failed to address the concerns laid out in their challenge.

"Defendants' 'representations and assurances' in their Notice Regarding Implementation fall far short of what is needed to address the serious and substantial First and Fifth Amendment issues raised by the [executive order]," the WeChat users group said in a subsequent filing Wednesday (see below). "Instead, Defendants' filing demonstrates that a preliminary injunction is necessary and appropriate to preserve the status quo and prevent the irreparable loss of rights pending full adjudication on the merits."

Trump issued sweeping bans on Aug. 6 against WeChat and fellow Chinese tech app TikTok, citing concerns that data that TikTok and WeChat collect "vast swaths of information" from their US users. There is also concern that Chinese companies may be unable to reject requests from China's ruling Communist Party to access that data. Often cited by critics of China is a 2017 law that requires Chinese companies and citizens to comply with all matters of national security.

A Trump administration filing in the same court Tuesday assured TikTok employees that a ban against that app wouldn't affect their paychecks or benefits or expose them to prosecution for doing their job.

The Justice Department's filing:

The WeChat user group's response: