A Brazilian judge has once again ordered the shutdown of the mobile messaging service WhatsApp, which is wildly popular in the country and used by more than 100 million people.
The order to the country's five telecommunications companies to suspend WhatsApp for 72 hours – from 1 p.m. (ET) on May 2 – was issued by a lower court judge in Sergipe state in the northeast. The judge wants the company to share messages related to a case against drug traffickers with the federal police, something the company says it cannot do.
The telecom operators took the service offline; they faced a fine equivalent to $180,000 a day if they failed to comply, according to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
The suspension is an inconvenience for Brazilians, who rely on the service to share information between families, from schools and with their doctors; WhatsApp is the most-used app in the country. The court order is also symbolic of the immense power of even lower court judges in Brazil, a feature of the legal system, which has had considerable political importance in recent months.
Judge Marcel Montalvao had Diego Dzodan, Facebook's vice-president for Latin America, arrested in March over failure to comply with a subpoena apparently related to the same case. Mr. Dzodan was arrested by federal police and held in custody for 24 hours until the arrest order was overturned in an appeals court.
Last December, WhatsApp was ordered offline for 48 hours by a lower court judge in Sao Paulo state, who wanted to compel the company to share information relevant to an unrelated criminal case being tried in his court. The service was restored after 13 hours, although the response of many Brazilians on social media suggested it felt like years.
The Sergipe case appears to hinge on the issue of end-to-end encryption, which WhatsApp recently began to offer – a security feature which means, the company says, that only the person who sends and the person who receives has access to what is in the text, audio, picture or video images transmitted through the service. So, says Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, it can't give the court the information the police want – it doesn't have access to it.
"After co-operating to the full extent of our ability with the local courts, we are disappointed a judge in Sergipe decided yet again to order the block of WhatsApp in Brazil," WhatsApp said in a statement. "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."
In February, yet another judge tried to suspend the service to compel the company to co-operate, in a separate case, but that decision was appealed and struck down before the suspension took effect.
Judges, as all of this illustrates – even lower court judges – have immense power in Brazil. This has been brought into vivid relief in the political upheaval that has gripped the country in recent months. In March, Sergio Moro, a federal court judge in the southern city of Curitiba, released audio recordings of the current and former presidents' phone calls as part of a corruption investigation.
That same week, President Dilma Rousseff appointed the former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to her cabinet, but he hasn't been able to take up the job because a series of lower courts issued injunctions to stop him. Many Brazilians disgusted by the corruption scandal engulfing the political class have celebrated the actions of the judiciary, but the WhatsApp shutdowns illustrate how the broad scope of legal purview means a single judge can dramatically influence the course of national events.
An estimated 91 per cent of Brazilian mobile users nationwide use WhatsApp, and the shutdown order presents a conundrum for the telecom companies, who have made clear they don't like the service. The company has headquarters in California, and doesn't pay taxes here, but it's sucking away the data and calling traffic that generates revenues for the mobile operators.
Bare-bones WhatsApp consumes minimal data, which makes it extremely popular with Brazilians, who face some of the highest mobile package tariffs in the world.
The main competitor messaging service, Telegram, meanwhile, reported that it signed up more than a million new users in the hours after the suspension was announced – but while 5.7 million signed up during the December shutdown, very few stuck with the service, migrating en masse back to the familiar interface of WhatsApp as soon as the ban was lifted.
Digital privacy, and who should be able to access user data, is a key issue in Brazil at the moment, although it has received little attention because of the larger political and economic crises. Congress is currently considering new legislation that, digital-rights activists say, would roll back key provisions of a 2014 Internet freedom law that at the time put Brazil at the forefront of protecting users.