We recently reported how a judge in Brazil ordered the WhatsApp service to be suspended in the country for forty eight hours. The suspension followed how WhatsApp failed to provide two judicial rulings with information apertaining to a criminal case despite a fine. Talking about the suspension, Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer, Mark Zuckerberg, posted the following: “Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open Internet. 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.” The outage apparently caused outrage in Brazil, which has an estimated one hundred million users, although there are some reports that the service was also disrupted in Chile and Argentina too. There were angry discussions on the floor of Brazilian congress, with congressman Caio Narcio yelling, “This is ridiculous. What about our freedom to communicate?” WhatsApp competitor, Telegram, which has a focus towards privacy thanks to keeping messages encrypted, announced on Twitter that it had received over a million downloads, which is believed was because the WhatsApp service was suspended.
However, a few hours after the WhatsApp service was suspended, Judge Xavier de Souza lifted the ban and said: “Considering the constitutional principles, it does not look reasonable that millions of users be affected as a result of the company’s inertia to provide information.” Instead, Judge de Souza recommended a higher fan be imposed onto WhatsApp. The original case concerns a criminal case where a drug trafficker said to be linked to the PCC, First Command of the Capital and one of Sao Paulo’s dangerous gangs. The trafficker allegedly used WhatsApp services while committing crimes. WhatsApp is reportedly used by companies, federal, local government agencies and presumably criminals to send pictures, messages and videos.
This case highlights the growing difficulties companies face in keeping user information private. In this case, WhatsApp were perhaps unfairly punished for providing information for a criminal case, but the news of the punishment is considered to be more important than the news of the alleged criminal activities of the individual concerned. As social media and instant messaging services are more commonly being used, the problem of finding a suitable punishment for companies unable or unwilling to comply is likely to also grow.