SÃO PAULO — A São Paulo court ordered Brazil’s mobile operators to block messaging service WhatsApp for two days after the app — Brazil’s most popular — repeatedly ignored demands to comply with a criminal case.
[UPDATE: The suspension was lifted on Thursday afternoon following an order from São Paulo justice tribunal.]
WhatsApp was suspended at midnight in Brasília (02:00 GMT) this Thursday, with users confirming the outage on social media as operators released statement that they were complying with the court order.
In São Paulo, some users said the service, which has nearly 1 billion users worldwide, had already been suspended before midnight.
Local media in Brazil, including the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, reported that the 48-hour suspension was ordered by a court in São Bernardo do Campos, a municipality located immediately south of São Paulo city, after WhatsApp refused to share data of a suspect relating to a drug trafficking trial.
Attempts in July and August to get WhatsApp to comply with the court’s requests were ignored, and the suspension was granted by Judge Sandra Regina Nostre Marques after the app continued to ignore the demands.
A public prosecutor said the decision was grounded in Brazil’s internet legislation, known as the Marco Civil, which became a congressional priority after revelations the NSA had spied on Brazil’s president, industry giants and millions of ordinary Brazilians.
However, legal experts say the rules – which saw Brazil take unprecedented global leadership in promoting “net neutrality” – are, paradoxically, actually being flouted by the suspension.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, described the decision as a “sad day for Brazil”:
Tonight, a Brazilian judge blocked WhatsApp for more than 100 million people who rely on it in her country.
We are working hard to get this block reversed. Until then, Facebook Messenger is still active and you can use it to communicate instead.
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.
We hope the Brazilian courts quickly reverse course. If you’re Brazilian, please make your voice heard and help your government reflect the will of its people.
The suspension comes amid calls from Brazil’s mobile operators for the government to clamp down on WhatsApp, which can be used to place voice calls. The operators, which have accused the service of being unregulated and illegal, have been losing out to the service.
They argue that as WhatsApp uses users’ phone number – unlike other services, which register users with email accounts – it is acting as a mobile operator for which it is not registered or licensed in Brazil.
WhatsApp’s supporters argue the service uses up mobile providers’ data allowances.
Only one mobile operator in Brazil – TIM – has decided to enter into a partnership with WhatsApp, offering free WhatsApp use on some of its plans. Conversely, the country’s biggest operator, Vivo, has labelled the messaging service “pure piracy“.
WhatsApp proved so popular in recent years as Brazilians sought alternatives to the country’s most expensive call plans on the planet.
As the ban was effected, social media was flooded with tips on how to circumvent the block, including by using a VPN providers, as well as suggesting which other services were available.
Rival messaging service Telegram says it has benefited from the block, reporting over 1.5 million Brazil users signing up in the last few hours, although the sudden demand had overloaded its systems.
Brazilian social media users – among the most active in the world – soon took to the web with memes mocking the suspension and offering advice as to how to “survive” the outage.
Others said, tongue in cheek, that they would seek solace in older technology:
At the time of writing, the top Twitter trend in Brazil – and second globally – is #Nessas48HorasEuVou or “in these 48 hours I’m going to…”
It is not the first time a Brazilian judge has tried to block WhatsApp: In February a court in the northeastern state of Piauí tried to force the messaging service to comply with an order to provide data relating to a police investigation into suspected paedophiles.
However, the decision was suspended before it could be implemented.