WhatsApp blocked in Brazil amid fears for online privacy

The 72-hour ban on the Facebook-owned messaging app comes as lawmakers vote on cybercrime bills that some say could roll back protections in Brazil's Internet bill of rights. 

Andre Penner/AP
Youth check their cell phones in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, May 2, 2016. A Brazilian judge has issued a 72-hour block on the popular messaging service WhatsApp, as lawmakers consider proposals on cybercrime that civil liberties groups say could threaten Internet freedom in the country.

A Brazilian judge issued a 72-hour ban on the popular messaging app WhatsApp on Monday amid the country's swirling debate on Internet freedom, two years after the country approved a landmark Internet rights bill.

The order signed by Judge Marcel Maia Montalvão orders mobile phone companies to block the Facebook-owned messaging app, which is used by about half of Brazil’s population of 200 million.

The judge didn’t give a reason for the order, but it’s believed to be connected to a request for user data related to a drug-trafficking investigation, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Conflicts between courts in Brazil and WhatsApp have been long-running. Judge Montalvão ordered the arrest of a Facebook official in March in connection with the drug trafficking case; the executive was released after a day in jail. Another court ordered a 48-hour ban of the service in December, which was later reversed, in connection with a separate drug case. 

But the timing of the ban is also significant for other reasons. It comes as Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, is set to vote Tuesday on a series of cybercrime bills that Internet freedom groups argue could roll back essential privacy protections guaranteed in Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet, an "Internet Constitution" approved in 2014. 

When it was passed, the Marco Civil was hailed as a key effort to provide privacy protections and protect users’ data amid growing concerns that the US National Security Agency was monitoring Brazilian telecoms.

In India and other countries, Facebook has had public spats with regulators over its Free Basics Internet service, which critics say violate the principle of net neutrality by favoring particular websites over others. In Brazil, however, WhatsApp and its owner, Facebook, have touted their commitments to users’ privacy, allying themselves more closely with both users and advocates for online freedom.

“Yet again million of innocent Brazilians are being punished because a court wants WhatsApp to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have,” Jan Koum, WhatsApp's chief executive, wrote in a Facebook message Monday night. “When you send an end-to-end encrypted message, no one else can read it – not even us,” he added.

The judge’s order requires Brazilian mobile companies to comply or face a fine of 500,000 Brazilian reals ($143,000 per day), Forbes reports.

Civil liberties groups have noted that despite its promises of security, WhatsApp doesn’t provide its own independent listing of requests for user data – as Facebook does. They are concerned that it and other popular sites could be impacted by the proposals to crack down on cyber crime, however. 

One of the bills at issue will allow judges to block sites or apps that are used for criminal purposes or choose not to comply with a demand for user information, notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A second proposal would allow police to access IP addresses without a warrant.

“The writing in some of the proposed bills is ambiguous and may legitimize abuses to the principle of net neutrality and the protection of freedom of expression and privacy online,” Jamila Venturini, a researcher at the Center for Technology and Society at FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro, says in a statement released by EFF.

“This represents a setback to the guarantees granted to Internet users by the Marco Civil da Internet, ignoring the long and open process of discussions that led to its approval in 2014," Ms. Venturini added.

On Monday, telecom companies criticized the judge’s order, with Joao Rezende, president of Brazil’s National Telecommunications Agency, calling it “disproportionate.”

“WhatsApp should comply with all legal orders as far as its technical capabilities allow. But obviously, the block is not the solution,” he told local reporters, the Times reports.

But at least one rival messaging app was celebrating. Telegram, which also touts its secure-messaging features, announced on Twitter Monday that its registrations systems were crashing as it received more than a million requests from new users hoping to join the service.

The app, which was created by a Russian exile who has touted the service as an even more secure alternative to Facebook’s offerings, offers the ability to send “secret” messages that delete themselves after a period of time.

It also experienced a similar boost following the WhatsApp ban in December, though it is much less widely-used in Brazil than WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

As many users express concerns about losing access to the app, civil liberties groups are also looking to the outcome of the lawmakers’ vote, which comes – in an ironic twist – on World Press Freedom Day.

“If the Cybercrime CPI proposal goes forward, this will be the new normal in the country,” Ronaldo Lemos, founding director of the Institute of Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro, who helped draft the Marco Civil da Internet, wrote in a Facebook post (translation via The Intercept).

“Every week we would have news of sites and services that are blocked, as it is in Saudi Arabia and North Korea,” he added.

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