On Thursday, a Brazilian judge overturned a 48-hour block of WhatsApp that a lower court had imposed when the company refused to hand over user data demanded by prosecutors in an investigation.
WhatsApp, a phone-messaging app which Facebook owns but considers a separate company, estimates it has 100 million personal users in Brazil: about half the population.
The truncated block – it lasted 12 hours on Thursday – infuriated users and led to angry exchanges on the floor of Congress, Reuters reports.
The block had been ordered by a judge in Sao Paulo and was supposed to be in effect starting midnight on Wednesday (0200 GMT Thursday) after the company, in spite of being fined, failed to comply with two judicial rulings to share information in a criminal case.
A judge in a higher court, Judge Xavier de Souza from the 11th criminal court of Sao Paulo, on Thursday issued an injunction to restore WhatsApp services, calling it unreasonable to punish millions of Brazilians due to one company’s recalcitrance, suggesting instead a higher fine:
Considering the constitutional principles, it does not look reasonable that millions of users be affected as a result of the company’s inertia to provide information.
Imagine Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg stabbing the air and shouting “EXACTLY!”
That’s the same argument that he made on his Facebook page earlier in the day:
This is a sad day for Brazil. Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open internet. Brazilians have always been among the most passionate in sharing their voice online.
I am stunned that our efforts to protect people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp.
Details about the criminal case in question are scarce, given that it’s sealed, but it reportedly involves a drug trafficker linked to one of Sao Paulo’s most dangerous criminal gangs who’d allegedly used WhatsApp while committing crimes.
The Associated Press says that Brazil’s biggest telecoms didn’t put up much of a fight against the block.
As it is, they’ve been complaining about WhatsApp for months, given that its free services are taking a bite out the revenues they’d otherwise get by selling their own text messaging services.
The suspension reportedly spilled over Brazil’s border to affect WhatsApp users in Chile and Argentina too.
The AP talked to one of the many Brazilians, Caroline Largueza, who were howling in frustration over the block.
The university student had been planning to meet friends to exchange Christmas presents on campus, but they’d planned to consult over WhatsApp to figure out exactly where.
The AP quoted her as she furiously tapped away on her phone in a Rio de Janeiro mall:
This is insane. It's ruining my 'secret Santa' party!'
Without WhatsApp it’s extremely hard to communicate with anybody.
Meanwhile, lawmakers fumed on the floor of Congress.
Reuters quoted a yelling congressman Caio Narcio:
This is ridiculous. What about our freedom to communicate?
The response shouldn’t surprise anybody. After all, Brazil has been dubbed the Social Media Capital of the Universe, spending more than double the global average when it comes to how much time they’re on social networks.
But as Tech Crunch’s Julie Ruvolo notes, a temporary WhatsApp shutdown in this communication-happy nation is nothing.
What the conservative congress would really like to see is a take-down of “the entire social web as we know it,” she writes, given bills circulating that would criminalize posting social media and which would allow the government to spy on citizens.
She points to PL 215/2015, nicknamed the Big Spy (“O Espião”), a surveillance law that would require Brazilians to enter their tax ID, home address and phone number to access any website or app on the internet; as well as requiring companies like Facebook and Google to store that information for up to three years, and provide access to police with a court order.