Technology & Science

WhatsApp blocked in Brazil, then reinstated — for 3rd time

A Brazilian judge briefly blocked the WhatsApp messaging service for failing to co-operate in a criminal investigation, before the country's top court overturned the measure in the third such incident since December.

Judge shuts down messaging app for failing to co-operate in criminal case

Diego Dzodan, a Brazil-based vice-president for Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, was jailed for about 24 hours in March after the messaging service said it could not comply with multiple law enforcement requests for user data related to a drug-trafficking investigation. WhatsApp was targeted again this week in Brazil. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

A Brazilian judge briefly blocked Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service on Tuesday for failing to co-operate in a criminal investigation, before the country's top court overturned the measure in the third such incident since December.

Federal Supreme Court President Ricardo Lewandowski said in a decision that it seemed "scarcely reasonable or proportional" for a judge in Rio de Janeiro state to have ordered the indefinite suspension of the messaging app until it revealed encrypted messages pertaining to a confidential case.

Still, the criminal judge left some 100 million Brazilian users without access to the messaging app for hours on Tuesday afternoon, showing the vast discretionary power of Brazil's lower courts.

WhatsApp stood by its defence that messages sent over its app are not stored on its servers and cannot be turned over to the courts. Co-founder and chief executive Jan Koum even took to Facebook to vent his frustration with the recurring legal issues in Brazil.

"It's shocking that less than two months after Brazilian people and lawmakers loudly rejected blocks of services like Whatsapp, history is repeating itself," he posted.

The office of Brazil's attorney general reiterated its position that judges who suspend WhatsApp are incorrectly interpreting a 2014 law meant to update the legal framework for the internet.

Drug trafficking investigations stymied

Still, that guidance has not stopped judges frustrated with the modern limits of wiretaps in drug-trafficking investigations from going after the service and even briefly jailing a senior Facebook executive in March.

Technology companies often run into roadblocks in Brazil's complicated legal system, where single judges have in the past also 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.

A court ordered access to WhatsApp blocked throughout Brazil, where the service has an estimated 100 million users, but the measure was quickly lifted by a higher court. (Reuters)

"As we've said in the past, we cannot share information we don't have access to," WhatsApp said in a public statement.

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.

But it has run afoul of local Brazilian courts several times within the last year.  

In a statement in December in an unrelated case that saw WhatsApp taken offline for 12 hours throughout Brazil, Sao Paulo's state court system said the company had ignored two prior judicial orders.

"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.

With files from The Associated Press