Brazil: WhatsApp services blocked nationwide in violation of freedom of expression

Brazil: WhatsApp services blocked nationwide in violation of freedom of expression - Digital

ARTICLE 19 condemns the blocking of access to WhatsApp in Brazil on Tuesday 19 July, authorised by a court order issued by Judge Daniela Barbosa de Souza, from the 2nd Criminal Court of the District of Duque de Caxias. It is the fourth time in less than two years that a court order has demanded the interruption of WhatsApp services in Brazil.

The judge also imposed a daily fine of 50,000 Reais (around 15,000 USD) on Facebook, the company which owns WhatsApp.

The block lasted only for a couple of hours, as another court order issued  by the Federal Supreme Court on the same day suspended the original measure.

“The nationwide blocking of a messaging service, even if only temporary, is a worrying demonstration of the Brazilian judiciary’s disregard for freedom of expression, and a worrying precedent for the future of encryption and other online freedoms in Brazil.” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

The interruption was justified on the grounds that WhatsApp has not shared information relating to criminal investigations with authorities. The company argued that it is not technically possible to hand over the requested content, as it implemented end-to-end encryption in April. In the order issued, Judge Daniela Barbosa reports that she even had asked for encryption to be disabled in the communication between the parties that are the subject of investigations.

The block on access to the service prevented millions of people living in Brazil from communicating through WhatsApp, which is now the world’s most popular messaging app. The measure is a blatant violation of the principles of proportionality under international law.

The court decision also misrepresents the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, the law which regulates the Brazilian Internet. In Article 12, which lists the penalties for noncompliance case of its rules, the Framework outlines the possible application of warnings and even fines, in addition to the temporary suspension of the services of a company. It is these penalties (warning and fines) which should be considered first before the decision to block the application services in the whole country.

It is also clear that there was a misinterpretation of the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, as it gave a greater weight to the punitive aspects of the law rather than to safeguards for the rights of Internet users.

The demand for the weakening the encryption and for providing backdoors is particularly concerning: encryption is vital to the exercise of freedom of expression as well as other human rights and must be protected. The importance of encryption was expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which launched a report on the subject in July last year. The demand for weakening or disabling encryption or adding backdoors would also serve as precedent to put the privacy of millions into danger.

Moreover, it is not possible to have central access to end-to-end encrypted messages. The judge’s request for this act is a worrying demonstration of the lack of technical understanding on the part of the Brazilian judiciary.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the blocking of the WhatsApp service, and the  court order which authorised  the interruption of services in Brazil. We call on the Brazilian Judiciary system to have a higher regard for the principles of freedom of expression on the Internet and for proportionality in measures taken.

Read our press release in Portuguese here.