Brazil Has Temporarily Blocked Whatsapp Over a Legal Dispute

Illustration for article titled Brazil Has Temporarily Blocked Whatsapp Over a Legal Dispute

Whatsapp has proven to be insanely popular in Brazil, as the number-one most used app in the country. But that doesn’t matter to a Brazilian court, which has ordered a 48-hour blockade of the service over an injunction from a mysterious third party.

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The court has ordered Brazil’s telecoms companies to block access to the app for 48 hours, starting at 0200 GMT on Thursday. The block is a punishment for WhatsApp’s refusal to communicate with the court. According to a statement put out by the court:

“Because WhatsApp did not respond to a court order of July 23, 2015, on August 7, 2015, the company was again notified, with there being a fixed penalty in case of non-compliance. As yet the company did not attend the court order, the prosecution requested the blocking of services for a period of 48 hours, based on the law […], which was granted by Judge Sandra Regina Nostre Marques.”

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The court order relates to a third party seeking an injunction against WhatsApp. The judge kept the name of the third party a secret, but it comes at a time when Brazilian cell companies are lobbying against WhatsApp taking away their SMS and voice calling business.

Entrentched industries lashing out against a novel tech solution isn’t exactly news, but the “fixed penalty” in this case seems bizarre. Sure, the move will hurt WhatsApp—other messaging services are already starting to take up the slack—but it will annoy Brazilian citizens far more.

[Reuters]

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DISCUSSION

Although the third party is kept secret, it’s been disclosed that the block order is due to a criminal case in which WhatsApp refused to release private info filed in the city of São Bernardo do Campo. This kind of order has been issued before as a way to force the company to aid in investigation, but the app has never been actually blocked for good.

In the latest incident in February, a state judge issued such an order for that same reason in an undisclosed case that, according to the judge, involved crimes against children and teenagers — likely of sexual nature. The order was quickly overruled and all remained as normal.

This time, news of the blocking surfaced around 8 pm, catching everyone off-guard. It was initially assumed mobile carriers might be behind the order, but the phone companies union has already stated that none of its members it behind it. The major telecom company Oi filed an appeal even before the block came into effect citing technical difficulties to fulfill the order in such short notice. Just the fact it’s a criminal and not a civil case indicate it’s probably just one more judge cracking her whip against a business she doesn’t quite understand.

Under the Marco Civil da Internet — Civil Rights Framework for the Internet — approved in April 2014, which includes full-blown net neutrality, this kind of denial of service is illegal. Even before the regulation took effect, it was not considered kosher, which is why previous block orders were overturned before taking effect.

Lower judges threatening to close the internet — and you thought Trump thought of that lunacy first! — is not that uncommon in Brazil. In 2006, triathlete, model, and soccer phenomenon Ronaldo’s former meteoric affair Daniela Cicarelli sued YouTube and other video sharing sites for not taking down videos of her with her then boyfriend having sex in the water at a beach in Spain — which she denies, of course. The websites did comply, but it’s a proven fact it’s impossible to keep new copies of a viral from popping up. In January 2007, YouTube was in fact blocked, which led to widespread outcry. The blocking was shortly overturned.

The brief success apparently was good inspiration. Just a couple of months later, Google’s now-defunct social network Orkut, then huge in the country, was briefly blocked in a city of 25 thousand after reports of a community displaying pictures and allegedly false sexual information of local inhabitants — at least seven of the girls mentioned were minors. The gag order called for blocking until the content was taken down, though it was overturned even sooner than that.

Brazil has a fairly complex, layered legal system. Due to some kinks in how it all works, judges in lower courts may at any time issue this kind of order in a knee-jerk reaction and the frightening thing is they occasionally do against succeed websites, apps and mobile carriers, though briefly. Luckily, most of these orders are culled before they hatch, but every now and then there’s a loose cannon that hits the fan.

Of course, VPN apps like Hola or Betternet will allow access to WhatsApp, but most people will likely resort to other IM apps at least temporarily.