A Brazilian judge recently ordered that local cellphone carriers block WhatsApp on their networks for a duration of 72 hours, initiating the lockout of over 100 million Brazilian users from the highly popular, Facebook-owned messaging service.
The ban began on Monday afternoon and is allegedly the result of an ongoing dispute between the Brazilian government and WhatsApp regarding the app’s encryption of 100 percent of the messages and pictures sent through its service. The Brazilian government has taken issue with this for months, and speaks chiefly through the orders of Judge Marcel Montalvo.
Clearly, issues balancing government surveillance and consumer privacy are not just an American thing.
Judge Montalvo has ordered that WhatsApp hand over encrypted data multiple times. Most recently, he ordered the turnover of chat records related to a drug investigation. As usual, WhatsApp’s response was to purport that it does not keep any records whatsoever and that it would be impossible to decrypt its own data, even if it did keep records. According to WhatsApp, Judge Montalvo repeatedly orders that the company give over something to which it does not have access in the first place.
As usual, Judge Montalvo and the Brazilian government aren’t buying it, and hope to pressure the company into folding. The first time the Brazilian government temporarily shut out WhatsApp was in December of last year, when Judge Montalvo ordered a 48-hour shut down in response to WhatsApp’s alleged refusal to take down illicit photos of minors. The ban lasted only 12 hours, after a different judge ruled that the initial order was “not reasonable” and “that millions of users [should not] be affected by the inertia of the company.”
It’s worth noting that WhatsApp is a hugely popular service, especially in Brazil, to the extent that major Brazilian telcos have been losing record numbers of subscribers to people who choose to replace their phone lines for WhatsApp and similar services.
The Brazilian government made another move to intimidate WhatsApp into conforming to its will when it arrested Facebook’s Latin America VP Diego Dzoden last March. Facebook went on record stating that the arrest was an “extreme and disproportionate measure” and pointing out yet again that it cannot access end-to-end encrypted data that it purposefully does not keep. Another point worth noting: WhatsApp is simply owned by Facebook; otherwise, it operates as an entirely separate entity from Facebook. Dzoden was in no way a major player in the dispute and was simply unfortunate enough to get caught up in the crossfire.
A judge ultimately agreed with Facebook’s portrayal of the situation, calling the move by the Brazilian government “unlawful coercion” and ordering the release of Dzodan the day following his arrest.
Of the most recent ban, WhatsApp had this much to say: “This decision punishes more than 100 million Brazilians who rely on our service to communicate, run their businesses, and more, in order to force us to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have.” Whether the Brazilian government will manage to keep this ban in motion remains to be seen; perhaps another judge will step forward to dispute it.