U.S. WeChat ban adopts China’s Great Firewall

The order reflects a broader push against mainland tech firms and rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Washington

  
The messenger app WeChat is seen in between China flags in this illustration picture taken August 7, 2020.

The messenger app WeChat is seen in between China flags in this illustration picture taken August 7, 2020.

Reuters/Florence Lo/Illustration

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

SAN FRANCISCO  - The U.S. ban on WeChat uses some bricks from China’s Great Firewall. While a federal judge gave the messaging app a temporary break from the order barring downloads, the White House is still committed to banning Chinese technology based on national security risks. It ups the ante on protectionism in a frontier that’s hard to control.

On Sunday a U.S. judge temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s order forcing Apple and Alphabet’s  Google unit to remove WeChat from their app stores, citing free-speech concerns of users of the messaging service owned by China's Tencent. While it is unclear whether the legal ruling will hold up, the Justice Department can appeal the halt to the ban, which was supposed to go into effect the same day.

The order reflects a broader push against mainland tech firms and rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Washington. Last month, America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo outlined the “Clean Network” drive to remove Chinese apps and other products from U.S. networks and online infrastructure.

The U.S. government faces more hurdles than the Chinese. Instead of a straight ban, the Commerce Department order issued on Friday prevented WeChat updates, services like payments, and other restrictions that hurt its functionality. And the judge’s halt shows the Trump administration’s controls have limits.

Still the United States is at least starting to adopt some of China’s practices. The People’s Republic prohibited Facebook FB.O , Twitter TWTR.N and Google in 2009 after protests in Xinjiang province. Attempts by Mark Zuckerberg’s firm and others to return have failed. Some of Trump’s aides say it’s a reason why America should do the same.

The U.S. move on WeChat hurts American tech companies, too. While it might not be that effective in practice – as Chinese internet users have figured out, there are work-arounds like using a virtual private network – it’s significant in principle. Part of the global appeal of platforms like Facebook is that users see essentially the same version of it wherever they are in the world and can easily interact or post content.

Plus it could become a slippery slope, effectively outlining other ways for the Trump administration to take aim at Chinese tech companies. One of the biggest appeals of doing business in the United States is rules that offer consistent treatment and are insulated from an administration’s political whims. Cutting the free flow of content and information and upending global commerce would have Washington following Beijing’s lead.

CONTEXT NEWS

- U.S. Judge Laurel Beeler on Sept. 20 temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s order forcing Apple and Alphabet’s Google unit to remove WeChat for downloads from their app stores. She said the First Amendment concerns of users of the Chinese messaging service who filed a lawsuit have merit.

- The U.S. Commerce Department said on Sept. 18 it will ban WeChat from U.S. app stores starting on Sept. 20, citing national security concerns. That will prevent people in the United States from downloading the Chinese-owned app. The agency also said it would prohibit additional technical transactions involving Tencent-owned WeChat, which could hurt the usability of the app in the United States.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Amanda Gomez) ((gina.chon@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: gina.chon.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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