Brazilian judge orders telecom companies to block WhatsApp

WhatsApp was shut down in Brazil for the third time in seven months after the company didn't comply with a court order in a criminal investigation.
WhatsApp was shut down in Brazil for the third time in seven months after the company didn't comply with a court order in a criminal investigation.

Less than three weeks before rowers dip their oars into the murky waters of Rio de Janeiro during the Summer Olympics, a Brazilian judge ordered telecommunications companies in the country to block WhatsApp for not complying with a court order issued as part of a criminal investigation.

It is the third time in seven months that the popular app, used by 93 percent of Brazilians, has been blocked by the courts for the same or similar reasons.

Judge Daniel Barbosa's order threatened telecommunications companies Oi, Nextel, TIM and Vivo e Claro with fines of about $15,000 daily if they didn't comply, according to a report in O Globo.

Internet shutdowns have been widely condemned, with the UN Human Rights Council recently passing a resolution against them and tech companies also coming forward to protest them. A group of 90 organizations from 41 countries have thrown their weight behind Access Now's #KeepItOn campaign.

Access Now Senior Global Advocacy Manager Deji Olukotun contended that shutdowns don't restore order nor do they protect rights. “This is a completely disproportionate response that harms people all over the country who rely on messaging services to communicate with their loved ones, document human rights abuses, or conduct business,” Olukotun said in a release. “On the eve of the Olympics -- when the entire world will be watching Brazil -- this sends the wrong signal about how the government will respect freedom of expression and digital rights. We call on authorities to immediately restore services to WhatsApp.”

Peter Micek, Access Now's global policy and legal counsel, noted that “Encryption keeps us safe, and companies need encouragement -- not penalties -- for taking steps like WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption,” designed to safeguard data. 

“Brazil appears to be blocking the country's most popular communications tool for not handing over data that the company does not have,” Micek said in the release. “As a result, Brazil's reputation for freedom of expression suffers and its markets look increasingly unfriendly to innovative, privacy-enhancing toolmakers.”

He encouraged Brazil to “follow the spirit of its Marco Civil and promote universal internet access, at all times.”

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