Zuckerberg slams Brazil's ‘scary’ WhatsApp block

WhatsApp messenger app.
WhatsApp messenger app.

San Francisco - Mark Zuckerberg took Brazilian officials to task again for temporarily blocking WhatsApp, the Facebook messaging service that’s the lifeblood of communication for much of the nation’s smartphone-savvy population.

“The idea that everyone in Brazil can be denied the freedom to communicate the way they want is very scary in a democracy,” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, said in a blog post Tuesday.

The outage of about 24 hours was the result of a judge’s order in the town of Lagarto.

Facebook has waged a battle with Brazilian legal authorities over access to private communications of its users. A judge reinstated the service Tuesday.

“Your voices have been heard once again. Thank you to our community for helping resolve this,” Zuckerberg said.

WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $22bn, is ubiquitous in Brazil. Its user count there of 100 million means almost half of the country’s population has signed up. Families and friends communicate with it. Store owners arrange deliveries through it. Real estate brokers have their WhatsApp number on their business cards.

The app has found its way into Brazil’s messy political scene as well. Last month, Vice President Michel Temer used it to send a recording of a rehearsed speech he was planning to give if President Dilma Rousseff were ousted - the process is still under way, with a key vote scheduled for next week. Temer’s office said the audio file was sent by accident.

WhatsApp’s popularity explains why the judge’s ruling to block the app in Brazil - originally for 72 hours - made the front page Tuesday of all the major newspapers in the country, next to the latest stories on the president’s impeachment and corruption probes.

It also explains why Lagarto made its way to Twitter’s trending topics in Brazil, with users storming to social media to vent.

Trending topic

Now, with access to the app restored, WhatsApp remains a trending topic. Lagarto, the town in the northeastern state of Sergipe where the judge issued the order, dropped off the list.

Before the order was lifted, WhatsApp said it was “disappointed’’ with the decision, claiming it doesn’t keep records of users’ conversations and therefore isn’t able to turn over data. In March, a Facebook executive in Brazil was detained for allegedly failing to cooperate with judicial orders related to information on the company’s website in an investigation of drug trafficking.

The WhatsApp block in Brazil comes as the world’s biggest technology companies are under competing pressures from governments to make their content accessible to law enforcement and by consumers and businesses seeking privacy for their communications and data. Apple, Amazon.com, Google and Microsoft have decried what they call an unprecedented expansion of government power that endangers the privacy of hundreds of millions of people.

In Brazil, the block left many scrambling for alternative ways to communicate. Pablo Spyer, the operational director at Mirae Asset Wealth Management in Sao Paulo, sends his clients early morning notes through the app about the markets and important news to help them make investment decisions.

“I felt very uncomfortable without WhatsApp and the suspension made me and my clients lose a lot of time,” Spyer said in an interview. “Many clients that receive my messages every day called to ask about the markets.”

Others sought free messaging apps to avoid paying for texts or phone calls. Telegram Messenger - which got a boost in Brazil in December when access to WhatsApp was blocked for the first time - said on Twitter that almost a million new users have joined in the country and more were waiting to have their requests processed. That adds to the 1.5 million that signed up after the December incident.

Meantime, some carriers took the matter into their own hands. Telecom Italia’s Tim Participacoes SA said it suspended charges on regular text messages for its 67 million customers while access to WhatsApp was blocked.

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