Brazil: Winning back WhatsApp

Brazilian backlash against temporary shutdown of social media app highlights the importance of open access to the internet  

William Carter

Over 90% of Brazilian internet users are on WhatsApp, using the free internet phone and messaging service to communicate within Brazil and abroad. Free apps like WhatsApp are vital for communication in a country like Brazil, not only because of its size but also because of the cost of its telephone plans, comparable to those of the UK despite the average Brazilian income being about two thirds lower than the UK equivalent. Crucially, Brazilians frequently use WhatsApp for work purposes, meaning the shutdown, though eventually shortened, would have caused economic damage at both an individual and national level. 

The decision to suspend the service for 48 hours within Brazil was taken by a Sao Paulo court in response to the app’s American headquarters’ refusal to place wiretaps on certain accounts. These wiretaps were to assist an ongoing drug related crime investigation in Brazil. 

Brazilians did not take kindly to this news. They responded to the crackdown on their social media freedoms through, unsurprisingly, social media - taking to Twitter in great numbers to protest the decision. Most managed to retain their sense of humour, with the hashtag '#Inthese48hoursIwill' trending and leading to comical suggestions of how Brazilians would spend their WhatsApp-free two days.   

The service was restored after 12 hours, with judge Xavier de Souza claiming that it was ‘unfair that millions of users would be effected by the inertia of the company’. However, the implications of the episode are worrying and form part of a wider debate on internet access. Threats to curtail internet use, on grounds of economics or security, have been recently emerging. In January 2015 David Cameron restated his belief that the revised ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, officially known as the Communications Data Bill, should grant the government access, in the interests of national security, to content sent over apps such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, and that such information be held for 12 months. Cameron proposed that, in the case of WhatsApp or Snapchat’s refusal, the apps be banned in the UK. Whether it is likely or even possible that these apps would surrender their encrypted data remains to be seen, but events in Brazil set a precedent for kneejerk blanket bans of apps and internet access in emergencies. 

More recently, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump suggested that in the fight against ISIS he would ‘certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody’. He too is suspicious of encryption and has suggested ‘shutting down’ internet access in ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria in order to curb ISIS recruitment in America and disrupt their propaganda output in general. In fact, shutting down local internet access is actually something ISIS is currently doing in parts of their territory, in efforts to slow the spread of activist journalism, such as the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently movement. Trump’s plans, though potentially feasible, seem crude, and may harm the efforts of those fighting against ISIS, such as the Kurds, more than they harm ISIS itself.   

Access to social media, such as Twitter and Facebook is vital, especially in developing and undemocratic countries, for its ability (admittedly sometimes misused) to inform, connect and rally. The use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the Arab Spring is an oft-cited example of the ability of social media to provide frameworks of organisation and resistance in difficult situations, where traditional means of communication are either too slow or may be blocked. was often disrupted, Social media during conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, for example, gave activists and regular citizens a platform of communication more free from government influence than state controlled TV and radio.

In Brazil itself, the internet has played revolutionary roles in the recent liberalisation of the country following the end of João Figueiredo’s military regime in 1985. Brazil’s ground-breaking 2014 internet usage law, Marco Civil, guarantees data protection and is a step towards net neutrality and enabling the anonymity of free speech, in a country in which anonymous free speech is constitutionally prohibited.  The legislation was drafted collaboratively online, while Facebook was crucial for organising the protests in advance of the 2014 World Cup.  The internet has provided Brazilians a platform to criticise politicians and political corruption, such as the recent Petrobras oil scandal, openly and to a much wider audience. As such, Brazil’s conservative congress is trying to amass support for a crackdown on social media, and to make it easier for the government to obtain privately shared content. 

Whilst Brazil has protected the internet freedoms of its citizens this time, it seems internet access is going to remain an ongoing political and economic issue.