Today, EFF—along with the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Internet Society—filed an amicus brief in support of U.S.-based users of the Chinese app WeChat, as they fight President Trump’s unconstitutional ban of the application. In its rush to eradicate WeChat from U.S. shores, we explain, the administration has taken an extraordinary step that weakens user security, intentionally dismembers infrastructure that keeps the Internet running, and emulates the very authoritarian tactics the U.S. government claims to deplore.
The Fight Against the WeChat Ban
Earlier this year, President Trump issued a pair of executive orders intended to ban two massively popular Chinese-owned applications, TikTok and WeChat, from the United States. The executive orders claimed the spread of applications developed in China to U.S. users “continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” and they directed the Commerce Department to draw up regulations to prohibit “any transaction” connected to either app within U.S. jurisdiction.
Despite the government’s claimed national security rationale, it was clear that the goal of these orders was censorship: entirely closing this country off from two wildly popular apps that provide the means of communication for millions of people. While TikTok may be familiar to U.S. readers for its “contagious vibe,” WeChat arguably enables even more important connections: it is a messaging application used by over a billion people worldwide, including 19 million users in the United States.
Many U.S.-based users of WeChat are members of the Chinese diaspora, and they use the application to stay in touch with friends, relatives, and contacts around the world, including in China. Due to WeChat’s reach and design, it has no equivalent, since many messaging applications developed in North America and Europe are banned or otherwise difficult to access within China. So the Trump administration’s decision to ban WeChat has disastrous consequences for the ability of millions of Americans to communicate, in clear violation of their First Amendment rights.
Before the WeChat ban went into effect, a newly formed U.S.-based WeChat Users’ Alliance sued the Trump Administration—and succeeded in stopping the ban from going into effect. In September, a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction, finding that the plaintiffs had raised serious questions about the constitutionality of the government’s ban on WeChat, and the government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Our brief in support of the users on appeal focuses on the disastrous consequences of the ban for the Internet as a whole.
In order to stop U.S. users from using WeChat, the Commerce Department ordered American app stores, such as Apple’s and Google’s, not to host the application or to offer security updates to existing users. As we explain, that leaves U.S. WeChat users “uniquely vulnerable to the very harm that the government claims that it is trying to prevent: the unauthorized access of WeChat users’ personal information.” It also completely flies in the face of decades of efforts to educate users about the importance of updates to improving Internet security, and encourages them to engage in risky behavior like downloading WeChat from untrusted third-party sources. The result puts not only WeChat users at risk, but also anyone they communicate with.
Similarly misguided are the government’s attempts to degrade the functionality of the WeChat application by prohibiting U.S.-based companies from providing hosting, CDNs, peering, and other network services to WeChat that make it usable within the United States. Taken as a whole, these orders do nothing short of breaking the Internet—they require companies to intentionally begin undoing the idea of the Internet as a “network of networks.” This sort of Internet fragmentation is more familiar as a tactic used by authoritarian governments such as Russia and indeed China itself to wall off their populations from outside influence and to ensure they can monitor and censor every part of their “sovereign Internets.” Unsurprisingly, every recent U.S. presidential administration—including the current one—has been extremely critical of attempts to undermine Internet freedom by these governments.
As our brief explains, following in China’s footsteps in order to ban WeChat is not just hypocritical—it’s dangerous. The result is a less secure, less connected, and less free Internet, and that harms us all.