Brazil judge blocks WhatsApp again as row escalates

A man walks with his mobile phone in his hand in downtown Rio de Janeiro, BrazilImage copyright

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A huge proportion of Brazil’s online population use WhatsApp – partly because making mobile calls is expensive

A judge in Brazil has blocked nationwide access to WhatsApp indefinitely, blocking the messaging app for the third time in two years.

The move comes after Whatsapp failed to hand over information requested in a criminal investigation.

WhatsApp also faces fines of 50,000 reais (£11,700; $15,300) per day until it complies with the judicial order.

A company spokesperson said: “As we’ve said in the past we cannot share information we don’t have access to”.

“Indiscriminate steps like these threaten people’s ability to communicate, to run their businesses, and to live their lives,” the WhatsApp spokesperson added, calling for the block to be lifted as soon as possible.

The most recent blockage happened in May, and forced 100 million people to turn to alternative services – a huge proportion of the internet-using population in a country with some of the world’s highest mobile phone charges.

In March, a Facebook executive was detained overnight for failing to comply with an attempt to block WhatsApp.

Correspondents say it is the latest clash in a battle between tech firms and judicial systems over how to collaborate in criminal investigations without compromising individual freedoms – like in the dispute between Apple and the FBI over access to the phone of the San Bernardino gunman.

Twitter users responded with frustration – and, in many cases, with parody:

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“Exclusive images of the office of [rival messaging service] Telegram after the judge’s decision to block WhatsApp in Brazil”

“The order was not complied with, despite being issued three times,” said Judge Daniela Barbosa de Souza in her Rio de Janeiro court, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo news website (in Portuguese), “thus requiring the adoption of coercive measures determined by this judgement.”

According to the Folha, the judge sought to have the contents of conversations sent in real time to investigators – as is the case with intercepted phone calls.

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WhatsApp insists it does not have access to its users’ messages – “privacy and security is in our DNA”

But end-to-end encryption – introduced in April – is a key advantage touted by WhatsApp.

In its website’s frequently asked questions, it says: “Privacy and security is in our DNA, which is why we have end-to-end encryption in the latest versions of our app… [This] ensures only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.”

But the judge counters that big tech firms need to abide by national laws, and if WhatsApp has the technology to encrypt messages, it should also have the technology to pass on judicially required information.

Technology commentators suggest the regular interruptions to service could dent WhatsApp’s popularity.

As with before, the blockage probably will not last more than a few days but, at this point, people may just tire of dealing with the WhatsApp vs. Brazil feud altogether,” remarked

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