US judge blocks Commerce Department order to remove WeChat from app stores

The WeChat app is displayed in the App Store on an Apple iPhone in Washington, DC. (AFP)
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Updated 21 September 2020

US judge blocks Commerce Department order to remove WeChat from app stores

  • WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia says

WASHINGTON: A US judge on Sunday blocked the Commerce Department from requiring Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to remove Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat for downloads by late Sunday.

US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco said in an order that WeChat users who filed a lawsuit “have shown serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim, the balance of hardships tips in the plaintiffs’ favor.”

On Friday, the Commerce Department had issued a order citing national security grounds to block the app from US app stores owned by Tencent Holding’s and the Justice Department had urged Beeler not to block the order.

Beeler’s preliminary injunction also blocked the Commerce order that would have barred other transactions with WeChat in the United States that could have degraded the site’s usability for current US users. The US Commerce Department did not immediately comment.

WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, Americans living in China and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.

The Justice Department said blocking the order would “frustrate and displace the president’s determination of how best to address threats to national security.” But Beeler said “while the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China (regarding technology and mobile technology) is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest.”

She added “The regulation — which eliminates a channel of communication without any apparent substitutes — burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s significant interest.”

WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.

The WeChat Users Alliance that had sued praised the ruling “as an important and hard-fought victory” for “millions of WeChat users in the US.”

Michael Bien, a lawyer for the users, said “the United States has never shut down a major platform for communications, not even during war times. There are serious First Amendment problems with the WeChat ban, which targets the Chinese American community.”


Global Amazon marketing agency launches in Middle East to help regional brands

Updated 19 October 2020

Global Amazon marketing agency launches in Middle East to help regional brands

  • Podean CEO Mark Power: ‘You can’t just look at Amazon as a pure sales channel, it is much more than that; it’s a vast array of properties, experiences, and content’
  • Mark Power: ‘The Middle East is a huge market of 230 million people so Amazon’s taking this very seriously because it’s a very strategic market with real volume and real growth’

RIYADH: Global Amazon agency and marketplace consultancy Podean has been officially launched in the Middle East, with a regional headquarters in Dubai.

In 2017, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) e-commerce market reached $8.3 billion with an average annual growth rate of 25 percent. In 2020, e-commerce expenditure exceeded expectations by more than $52 billion since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown began in March – up 77 percent year-on-year. And at the forefront of this surge was Amazon.

In the UAE alone, 46 percent of shoppers use Amazon with Noon being a distant second at 16.9 percent.

Mark Power, founder and CEO of Podean, spoke to Arab News about the Amazon ecosystem and how his agency can help brands succeed on the platform.

Podean launched in New York 9 years ago and has since expanded to the UK, Australia, and the Middle East. Power comes from an agency background having worked at The Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG).

“Holding companies (such as IPG) are very sophisticated and they have huge scale and they help brands in a very sophisticated way when it comes to media and creative but they really don’t understand the nitty gritty of the world of e-commerce and retail and they have a lot of trouble working out how to make money from it,” he said.

On the other hand, he added, Amazon-focused agencies were usually started by ex-Amazon employees who have a siloed approach.

“We believe Amazon should be ultimately integrated with everything else you’re doing as a brand. You can’t just look at Amazon as a pure sales channel, it is much more than that; it’s a vast array of properties, experiences, and content,” Power said.

A common challenge is that most brands and businesses think of Amazon as a sales or retail channel simply to place their product on.

“It doesn’t get the love it really needs because Amazon has now given people access to tools to make their products stand out, and if you’re not doing that you can quickly lose out on precious sales and valuable traffic or not convert that traffic because you haven’t invested and you haven’t sort of adjusted to the new the new Amazon reality,” he added.

As of 2018, Facebook and Google commanded around 70 percent of digital advertising dollars while Amazon’s share was roughly 7 percent and it has surely increased – beyond regular forecasts – this year.

Amazon’s consumer growth has been supported by the launch of initiatives and products for businesses such as the Amazon Marketing Cloud and its demand-side platform (DSP), which allows brands to place display and video ads across Amazon’s websites and apps.

This year has also marked a significant milestone for the e-commerce giant with product searches on Amazon surpassing those on Google in the US. All of this means that brands – even those not selling on the platform – can now also use Amazon for upper-funnel marketing activities, such as brand awareness, and not just for performance marketing. They can also access Amazon’s data to pinpoint the consumer journey and better target audiences.

Power pointed out that the agency’s services were not cannibalizing audiences away from a brand’s direct-to-consumer channel, but rather finding these potential consumers who have visited a brand’s direct-to-consumer channel but prefer the Amazon experience and shaping their consumer journey in a way that is favorable to the brand.

While consumers are flocking to Amazon for everything from toilet paper to electronics, sellers and businesses are expressing concerns as evidenced by the antitrust hearing against Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Sellers know that the best place to sell online is Amazon, but it is a tricky situation to be in when Amazon starts selling its own versions of the most popular products.

“It’s hard to make a judgment call. But, at the same time, some of the things that we’ve seen as partners within the Amazon ecosystem doesn’t look good at all,” Power said.

He chalked it down to the silos that exist within Amazon. “Amazon is a siloed business made up of a vast array of different entrepreneurial businesses within different businesses within different businesses and that has caused it to become an incredible success.

“But I think it also can be something where because there are silos and lack of communication, some of those teams go off and do things and they do it fast and so successfully, that it may come at a cost – not just to other teams within Amazon, but also the partners that they’ve built.”

He added that Amazon was now being much more careful as to how it worked with partners, “not just be obsessed with end-consumers which it has been touting for many years.” And this is reflected in the initiatives it has launched to support partners and brands such as its APIs (app programming interfaces) and Brand Registry programs.

Its advertising tools for the Middle East are in the process of being launched starting with the UAE and Saudi Arabia and then Egypt and Turkey, all of which will be served by Podean’s Middle East headquarters in Dubai.

Power said: “It (the Middle East) is a huge market of 230 million people so Amazon’s taking this very seriously because it’s a very strategic market with real volume and real growth.”