Brazil’s Digital Backlash

Robert Muggah, Nathan B. Thompson, The New York Times, 01/12/2016

A São Paulo judge sent shock waves across Brazil last month with a ruling that required Brazilian telecommunications operators to block the use of the instant messaging platform WhatsApp for 48 hours. Less than 13 hours later, another São Paulo judge reversed the decision, restoring service. But in the meantime, as many as 100 million Brazilians had been seriously inconvenienced, and civil libertarians around the world looked on with dismay.

Brazilians take their social media very seriously. The country has one of the fastest growing populations of Internet users in the world. Online tools like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are used not only to express opinions; they are an affordable alternative to exorbitantly priced Brazilian telecom providers. One recent study in Brazil found that WhatsApp was used by 93 percent of those surveyed who had Internet access.

The official reason for the judge’s decision to suspend WhatsApp was because its parent company, Facebook, refused to comply with requests to provide personal information and communications records to prosecutors in an investigation into organized crime and drug trafficking. This is not the first time that the Brazilian authorities have jousted with tech companies. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the crimes being investigated, the judge’s action was reckless and represents a potentially longer-term threat to the freedoms of Brazilians.

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