A state judge in the Brazilian state of Sergipe has ordered all mobile phone operators in the country to block Facebook-owned WhatsApp for 72 hours, nationwide. Those five telecom providers put the ban into effect today, and it affects about 100 million people. In Brazil, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app.
No reason for the order was released, because of legal secrecy surrounding an ongoing case in the Sergipe state court.
WhatsApp today said the company is "disappointed at the decision" after doing its best to cooperate with this and other tribunals in Brazil. In those cases, the US-based technology company has been asked to provide user data to Brazilian authorities.
The Sergipe state decision to block WhatsApp "punishes more than 100 million users who depend upon us to communicate themselves, run their business and more, just to force us hand over information that we don't have," the statement said, without further elaboration.
At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald predicts the move will reverberate far beyond Brazil, in the growing number of global conflicts between governments and the technology community around encryption, security, and privacy online. Greenwald is based in Brazil.
The ruling, issued on April 26, became public today when it was served on mobile service providers. It took effect at 2 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET); as of that time, people in Brazil who tried to use the service could not connect, nor could they send or receive any messages. Failure to comply will subject the service providers to a fine of 500,000 reals per day ($142,000 per day).
WhatsApp is the most-used app in Brazil, a country of 200 million people (it is now owned by Facebook, the country's second-most used app). An estimated 91 percent of Brazilian mobile users nationwide — more than 100 million individuals — use WhatsApp to communicate with one another for free (it has 900 million active daily users around the world). Brazilians spent this morning, in the hours before the block took effect, frantically sending each other messages on WhatsApp warning that the service was going down for three days.
This ruling comes from the same judge, Marcel Maia Montalvão, of a small town in Sergipe state, who two months ago ordered Facebook's vice president for Latin America, Diego Dzodan, to be detained over WhatsApp's failure to cooperate with a subpoena issued as part of a criminal investigation. The judge said the arrest was justified by Facebook's "repeatedly failing to comply with judicial orders" in a drug-trafficking case. Pursuant to that order, Dzodan was arrested by federal police and held in custody for a full day, until an appellate court overturned the order.
"Journalists in Brazil regularly rely on WhatsApp for their reporting," CPJ said in a statement. "Blocking access to such a widely used platform is an overreach that violates the open nature of the Internet and disproportionally damages the free flow of information."
The block will disrupt the work of journalists who frequently use the platform to communicate with sources, according to CPJ research. This is not the first time that the 100 million Brazilians who regularly use the service have had to go without it. In December 2015, the platform was blocked for 12 hours for failing to turn over information in an unrelated criminal investigation. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, told The New York Times that it was technically unable to comply with the order because of its encryption technology.
In March, the same judge in the state of Sergipe who issued today's order, Marcel Montalvão, ordered the arrest of Facebook executive Diego Dzodan after WhatsApp did not turn over data in a criminal investigation, according to press reports. It was not immediately clear whether today's order to block WhatsApp was related to the March arrest order.