The battle between WhatsApp and one of the world’s largest countries has entered another round

WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular messaging apps, has entered another round of fighting with Brazil, home to more than 100 million of the app’s roughly 1 billion users.

On Tuesday, a judge in Rio de Janeiro state ordered the country’s main service providers to block access to the messaging app or face fines of roughly $15,000 a day.

The judge issued the order because of what the Spanish newspaper El País characterized as her frustration with the app’s lack of compliance with court orders to turn over information related to ongoing cases.

“The judicial order has not been fulfilled despite being reiterated on three occasions,” the judge told El País, adding that the app’s attitude showed a “total ignorance of the national laws.”

“It is [WhatsApp] that has established a branch in Brazil, and, as such, it is subject to the laws and language of the country,” Judge Daniela Barbosa Assunçao de Souza in Duque de Caxias, a city northwest of Rio de Janeiro city, wrote. “This court doubts that in its country of origin the company takes a judicial order with such distrust.”

WhatsApp responded in defense of itself, saying it was not able to share information to which it did not have access and that actions “like this put in danger the capacity of users to communicate, conduct their business, and live their lives.”

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Senior Facebook executive Diego Dzodan, who was recently released from a Brazilian jail because of a disputed court order demanding data from the company’s WhatsApp messaging service for a confidential drug-trafficking investigation, in Cambridge.
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Thomson Reuters

“It’s shocking that less than two months after Brazilian people and lawmakers loudly rejected blocks of services like Whatsapp, history is repeating itself,” WhatsApp cofounder and chief executive Jan Koum said on Facebook.

While WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has been sanctioned by Brazilian courts on multiple occasions, higher courts in the country have lifted the punishments in each instance.

This time – though Brazilian WhatsApp users were left without service for hours on Tuesday – the outcome appears to be the same as those of previous incidents.

Ricardo Lewandowski, the president of Brazil’s federal court, responded to a petition from Brazil’s Popular Socialist Party by ordering on Tuesday afternoon that the block be lifted throughout the country, arguing that suspending the service “apparently violated the fundamental precept of the liberty of expression and communication.”

The latest brouhaha appears to have galvanized the Brazil government to respond to the ongoing legal wrangling over WhatsApp’s operations.

Brazil’s attorney general’s office reiterated its argument that judges who suspend the messaging service were incorrectly interpreting a 2014 law that was intended to update the legal framework for the internet.

Moreover, the country’s government plans to draft a bill to “provide a framework for cooperation with authorities without depriving about 100 million users” of WhatsApp service, according to Reuters.

‘Taking it down during the Olympics would be a disaster’

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A Brazil fan before the 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match between Cameroon and Brazil at the Brasilia national stadium.
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REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

The order to block WhatsApp was the third time since December that a Brazilian court has tried to block the messaging app, which has been clashing with authorities in the country since February last year, when the company refused to turn over private user information in response to an order to cooperate with a child-molestation investigation. (The threat of a nationwide block did not come about in that instance, according to El País.)

While, as Insight Crime notes, the continued struggle between Brazil and WhatsApp epitomizes the ongoing clash between the needs of tough-on-crime law enforcement in a country facing high crime rates and the public’s right to communicate without interference, the timing of this latest dust up is significant.

“WhatsApp has become one of Brazil’s most critical mass communications tools. Taking it down during the Olympics would be a disaster,” James Bosworth, CEO of the regional advisory firm Southern Pulse, tweeted on Wednesday.