Brief Brazilian WhatsApp Ban Shows How Essential Social Media Messaging Is, Boosts Telegram App by 1.5M Users
On the same day that investigators of the ISIS Paris attacks announced to CNN that the perpetrators used encrypted chat apps, including WhatsApp and Telegram, to communicate under the radar of law enforcement, Brazil imposed -- and then subsequently rescinded -- a nationwide ban of WhatsApp for similar reason, at least officially.
Late Wednesday night, a judge in São Paulo, Brazil ordered a 48-hour takedown of WhatsApp's online social media messaging services in the country, directing telecommunications companies throughout the country to block WhatsApp from their networks.
WhatsApp, world's most popular messenger and the most used app in Brazil, according to TechCrunch, had failed to comply with a court order relating to a criminal case in which the company had been asked to provide details of online communications of a suspected gang member.
"Because WhatsApp did not respond to a court order of July 23, 2015, on Aug. 7, 2015, the company was again notified, with there being a fixed penalty in case of noncompliance. As yet the company did not attend the court order, the prosecution requested the blocking of services for a period of 48 hours, based on the law... which was granted by Judge Sandra Regina Nostre Marques," explained Judge Xavier de Souza of São Paulo, in his order to reinstate WhatsApp, released just hours after the ban was first imposed.
The WhatsApp ban didn't last long. It began at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, but within 12 hours -- and after public outcry -- Judge de Souza ordered access to WhatsApp to be restored, saying that it was "not reasonable that millions of users be affected by the inertia of the company," according to Buzzfeed. He instead ordered that WhatsApp pay a fine.
Though the ban was short, it affected a lot of Brazilians -- the majority of those with an Internet connection, in fact. As TechCrunch pointed out, 93 percent of the country's Internet population, or approximately 93 million people, use WhatsApp. It's particularly a useful alternative way of communicating for Brazil's young and poor population, as Brazil's telecommunications industry imposes of the most expensive service plans in the world.
And that could be one of the unstated reasons for the failed ban, belying the law enforcement rationale implied by the original takedown order.
As ZDNet reported in late summer, the largest mobile telecommunications companies in Brazil have seen WhatsApp as a major threat -- especially since it now has a voice chat feature that works through mobile phone numbers. For months, Brazil's telecos have been lobbying the government to impose new taxes and more regulations on WhatsApp and similar services, or to have the app declared illegal altogether.
Besides demonstrating how essential WhatsApp is in Brazil as a basic communications service, the unsuccessful two-day ban on the service may have backfired for another reason: The even more heavily encrypted and privacy-conscious chat app Telegram announced it had grown its user base in Brazil by "1,500,000 and counting" during the 12-hour WhatsApp outage imposed by the court, as TheVerge reported.
If the point of the court order was actually to compel online messaging services to provide information to and cooperate with law enforcement, it instead drove over a million Brazilians to an even more secure version of WhatsApp.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, responded to the ban with a post on his Facebook page, calling it a "sad day for Brazil" and saying he was "stunned" by "such an extreme decision."
WhatsApp founder and CEO Jan Koum responded as well, presciently calling the move "short sighted."
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