Facebook-owned messaging application WhatsApp was temporarily banned in Brazil. But the blockade may just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
A Brazilian state judge ruled that for 48 hours starting on Thursday, WhatsApp would be blocked across the country. The judge, Xavier de Souza, said that the ruling was part of a criminal investigation. After about 12 hours, the blockade was lifted after de Souza decided that it was not “reasonable that millions of users are affected.”
For his part, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the blockade “a sad day” for Brazil. He was joined by millions of users across the country who railed against the blockade.
Facebook (FB) acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion. The application is one of the world’s most popular messaging platforms, allowing users to send text, audio, video, and photos to others. It has over 900 million users worldwide. Brazil is one of its biggest markets with over 100 million users.
Questions abound over why a court would block WhatsApp in a country where, until recently, Internet access and freedom of expression on the web have been critically important. Indeed, it was just last year when Brazil passed the Marco Civil da Internet, its Internet “Bill of Rights” that protected freedom of speech on the web and the right for all people to have fast and unimpeded Internet access.
However, things are changing rapidly in Brazil. The country’s economy is in a downward spiral and its president, Dilma Rousseff, has come under fire for alleged involvement in scandals and treating government employees poorly. Meanwhile, more conservative lawmakers are building their power and attempting to dramatically alter some of the state’s most important laws, including Marco Civil da Internet.
One such reform, dubbed PL 215/15, would force all Internet users across Brazil to enter their home address and phone number, among other identifying information, in order to access any website or mobile app. The proposed law has also been criticized for attempting to censor social media and allow the government to step in to maintain its own view of “order” on the Internet.
Neither the court nor Facebook confirmed the nature of the criminal investigation that prompted the WhatsApp blockade. However, Zuckerberg seemed to have hinted in his statement on Facebook that it may, in some way, be connected to the ongoing debate in Brazil over whether Marco Civil da Internet went too far in protecting a user’s privacy, freedom of speech, and data.
“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,” Zuckerberg said, without elaborating on how WhatsApp is attempting to “protect people’s data.”
Privacy issues aside, WhatsApp coming under fire in Brazil is perhaps not as surprising as some might believe.
Over the last several months, WhatsApp, which is the most popular mobile app in Brazil, has been criticized by telecoms for competing unfairly. In August, some of the top telecoms in Brazil decided that they would file a report aimed at convincing the government that WhatsApp is operating illegally and should be banned, Reuters reported at the time, citing sources.
Interestingly, the crux of their argument is not focused on text-messaging features, but rather WhatsApp’s voice calling. The feature allows users in Brazil to place voice calls over data networks. The telecoms argue that WhatsApp is skirting regulations by offering a voice service. They are concerned that unlike telecoms, WhatsApp is not paying activation fees and ongoing charges related to providing a mobile number to users.
Simply put, the telecoms argue that if WhatsApp wants to operate a voice service between mobile users, it should be required to pay the same fees as the companies that provide cellular networks. Under the current law in Brazil, however, WhatsApp is seemingly doing nothing wrong.
Still, that hasn’t stopped WhatsApp’s troubles. Similar bans were tried earlier this year to no effect and Amos Genish, president of one of Brazil’s largest telecom companies, Telefonica Brasil, has called the service a “pirate operator.” He reportedly said earlier this year that while he has “nothing against WhatsApp,” he believes that the company should be forced to play by the same rules as telecoms.
For their part, the telecoms said that they weren’t behind the WhatsApp ban. Indeed, in an odd twist, the block caused some headaches for those companies, which needed to actively block WhatsApp—a difficult task, considering how frequently it’s used across Brazil and the tight timeframe in which it was banned.
Still, the future seems fraught with issues for WhatsApp. The ban may have only lasted a fraction of its proposed time, but the political and competitive issues aren’t going anywhere. And chances are, Facebook will need to fight more battles in Brazil before anything is settled.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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