Science

WhatsApp back online in Brazil after judge temporarily blocked service

WhatsApp is back online in Brazil. For many at least. A Brazilian judge has struck down a lower court ruling that temporarily blocked the popular messaging service.

Some 100 million people use WhatsApp in Brazil

Mark Zuckerberg, who heads WhatsApp's parent company Facebook, indicated in a Facebook post that the case was related to the company's attempt to guard customers' data. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

WhatsApp is back online in Brazil. For many at least.

A Brazilian judge has struck down a lower court ruling that temporarily blocked the popular messaging service.

The service has about some 100 million users in Brazil and its 12-hour-long ban snarled communications for many people.

A court ordered it blocked in connection with a criminal case.

But a higher court ruling says that decision was unconstitutional and ordered the service allowed back online. WhatsApp was slowly being made available again by mid-afternoon Thursday.

Zuckerberg 'stunned' by temporary block

The reason for the order was murky because it arose from criminal proceedings in Sao Paulo state that are kept under judicial secret.

However, Mark Zuckerberg, who heads WhatsApp's parent company Facebook, said in a Facebook post that the case was related to the company's attempt to guard customers' 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 wrote in his Facebook post.

"Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open internet," he added. "Brazilians have always been among the most passionate in sharing their voice online."

Brazil's biggest telecoms put up scant fight against the judicial order. For months they have complained about WhatsApp, saying that they lose revenue because clients use its free services instead of using the phone companies' own text messaging. But the association representing the cellphone industry, SindiTelebrazil, denied in a statement those companies were the plaintiffs in the case.

Quick migration to other chat services

Brazilians are among the globe's most voracious users of social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Many were quickly migrating to WhatsApp's competitors. Viber said usage in the Brazilian market had grown by 2,000 per cent in 12 hours, while the messaging service Telegram said over 1.5 million new Brazilian clients started using it Thursday.

Sao Paulo's criminal court system wouldn't give a reason for the blockage, saying only that WhatsApp had been handed two prior judicial orders this year that the California-based company failed to heed. (Patrick Sison/Associated Press)
Technology companies often run into roadblocks in Brazil's complicated legal system, where single judges have in the past tried to block Facebook, Google and other services for various reasons, such as failure to remove offensive posts or not handing over user information for investigations.

However, Thursday's block of WhatsApp appeared to be the first time a major online service was blocked nationwide.

"This is insane. It's ruining my 'secret Santa' party!"' said Caroline Largueza, as she furiously tapped away on her smartphone in a Rio de Janeiro mall.

The university student planned to meet friends to exchange Christmas presents on her school's campus, but they'd intended to consult over WhatsApp on Thursday exactly where they'd gather.

"Without WhatsApp it's extremely hard to communicate with anybody," she complained.

WhatsApp is used by nearly half of Brazil's population, according to the company.

Media outlets use it to obtain tips, photos and video from readers; families have chat groups to share snapshots of kids and organize family dinners; taxi drivers are constantly trading advice via WhatsApp on where traffic is bad and where clients are waiting.

"Today I fell ill and I am working from home. I have two WhatsApp groups with my staff," said Luciana Rego, a manager at a household care products company. "When I am out, I give all the instructions in the app, they tell me what they are doing. It's great to speed up decisions, we use it a lot. Today it is taking a long time. We went back to email."

In a statement, Sao Paulo's state court system said only that California-based WhatsApp had ignored two prior judicial orders this year.

"Because even then the company did not heed the judicial decision, the public prosecutors' office requested the service be blocked," the court's statement read.

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