Brazilian judges can be a touch messianic. Back in 2013, a real-life row between a former Miss Brazil, a dentist, and a pit bull spilt over online, prompting one judge to threaten to pull the plug on Facebook across the entire country.
Now, another magistrate in the northeastern state of Piauí has ordered telecoms providers to block the WhatsApp messaging service across the whole of Brazil, following the company's refusal to hand over data to a police investigation.
On Thursday evening, a higher court quashed the judge's order to block WhatsApp. The decision cannot be appealed. However, Alesandro Barreto, one of the police officers who requested the original order, told Motherboard (via WhatsApp) that his team would try again to block the messaging service for its failure to cooperate in other investigations.
Over the past week, millions of Brazilians have been looking for other free messaging services, fearful their WhatsApp was going to be cut off at any minute.
Judge Luis Moura Correia ordered WhatsApp to be blocked back on February 11, following its failure to provide information to a police inquiry. The specifics of the inquiry are under seal, but the data was requested by the police unit charged with the protection of children and adolescents in the state capital, Teresina.
Correia, who asked for the company's cooperation in the case back in 2013, will only say the charges are "serious. […] Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this." In the Brazilian press, it is widely assumed the data relates to charges of paedophilia and/or child pornography.
The court order "is a way of making the company honour its obligations, of forcing it [WhatsApp] to cooperate so the police investigation can proceed," Correia said.
While the intentions behind the decision may be noble, around 45 million Brazilians use WhatsApp. Few have been impressed by the judge's approach.
"This decision would limit the constitutional right to free expression"
"Why should millions of people be penalised for the actions of a few bad users?" Gisele Arantes, a digital law specialist, told me. "This decision would limit the constitutional right to free expression. Brazil is a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights. It clearly violates that treaty and could see Brazil punished for its failure to respect human rights. This is censorship."
The police in charge of implementing the order have cited Brazil's new civil rights framework for the internet, the Marco Civil, as the justification for their actions.
In a press conference on February 25, Kátia Esteves, an investigator from Piauí's child crimes unit, defended the decision.
"WhatsApp can be blocked in accordance with the Marco Civil. It is a company supplying services in Brazil and with representation in Brazil," she said. "In this case, the Brazilian representative of WhatsApp is Facebook."
Facebook, however, only completed its purchase of WhatsApp late last year and it argues that the two companies are independent entities. The social network claims it is not legally responsible for the messaging service. Neither company responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.
With no assistance from either Facebook or WhatsApp, the judge has gone after the telecoms companies.
But Arantes argues that the new Brazilian law offers other legal remedies for a failure to respond to a subpoena. "The Marco Civil allows for financial penalties, temporary suspension of service as well as full-scale interruption of service. The judge has gone straight for the most radical option. He had other ways of making the companies comply."
SindiTelebrasil, the telecom operators union, issued a statement expressing its "surprise" at the judge's decision.
"For SindiTelebrasil, the decision is disproportionate, given that for the sake of obtaining information from a small number of people, […] it has been decided that the service must be suspended throughout the whole country," the statement reads. "And furthermore, this request is being asked of telecoms providers, who have nothing whatsoever to do with the service."
2 million new signups from Brazil in the last 20 hours. Currently signing up 100 new users per second.
— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) February 26, 2015
While the uncertainty continues, panicking WhatsApp users are migrating to other services. On Thursday afternoon Telegram tweeted that it had gained 2 million new sign-ups from Brazil in the past 20 hours; a rate of 100 new users per second.