SAN FRANCISCO: California WeChat users filed a lawsuit against parent company Tencent on Wednesday, saying the mobile app is being used to spy on and censor users for the benefit of the Chinese government.
Citizen Power Initiative for China (CPIFC), a US-based nonprofit, has filed the lawsuit in Silicon Valley, and six California residents have joined in urging a state court to order Tencent to change its methods and pay compensation.
“As the global erosion of democratic values shows little sign of abating, this lawsuit is part of our attempt to slow this erosion, and perhaps help turn the tide, by relying on the rule of law,” CPIFC Chair Yang Jianli said in a statement. .
“Democracy depends on the ability to communicate without censorship that is politically motivated, and we hope this lawsuit will help the Chinese-speaking Californians, who make up much of the Chinese diaspora, to do so.”
The lawsuit argued that Tencent’s relationship with the Chinese government enables it to keep competition out of the market while honing its algorithm to better censor or extract user data.
“There is no reasonable alternative to WeChat for anyone wishing to maintain regular contact with the Chinese-speaking world,” the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, WeChat users in California and others “sacrifice a combination of speech, privacy and other rights as a condition for using WeChat.”
The CPIFC has described itself as a US-based non-profit organization promoting the transition to democracy in China.
“Despite everything a WeChat user can do on the WeChat platform, what they cannot easily do – including in California – is send messages that are perceived as critical of the party’s state,” the lawsuit said.
“Such messages tend to be blocked, censored, and deleted and can lead to ban, suspension or deletion of the user’s account.”
Comments made by California users on WeChat to family members in China led to visits from security agents in that country, according to the lawsuit.
Tencent could not be reached for comment.
Before leaving office this month, former US President Donald Trump ordered a ban on Alipay, WeChat Pay and other apps linked to Chinese companies, saying they could direct user information to the government in Beijing.
The executive order is set to go into effect in February, except for a reversal by President Joe Biden.