A judge in Brazil has ordered mobile phone providers to block the wildly popular WhatsApp messaging application for 72 hours, a decision apparently aimed at forcing the service to turn over user data.
Roughly half of Brazil’s 200 million people use WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook.
The judge, Marcel Montalvao, who works in the small northeastern state of Sergipe, did not give a reason for the order, which took effect across the country Monday afternoon. But it is thought to be related to a drug-trafficking investigation.
In March, the same judge ordered the brief arrest of Facebook’s vice president for Latin America for the company’s refusal to turn over data on WhatsApp customers suspected in the drug case.
The order Monday marks the second time that authorities have shut down WhatsApp in Brazil.
In December, a different court ordered a 48-hour suspension after the service refused to comply with a criminal investigation. A higher court sided with the company and quickly overturned the ban. In all the service was shut down 13 hours.
That was long enough to disrupt Brazilian society.
WhatsApp is so popular in Brazil that it has essentially replaced traditional text messaging, which can be expensive. Without WhatsApp, many Brazilians using common pay-as-you-go plans have no way to send messages. The service is also used to make calls and send images and files.
In a statement to the press, a WhatsApp spokesman said the company was “disappointed” with the decision and that it had cooperated with the courts to the full extent of its ability.
“This decision punishes more than 100 million Brazilians who rely on our service to communicate, run their businesses, and more, in order to force us to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have,” the statement said.
Joao Rezende, president of Brazil’s National Telecommunications Agency, also criticized the ban, telling local reporters that it was “disproportionate” because users are punished.
“WhatsApp should comply with all legal orders as far as its technical capabilities allow,” he said. “But obviously, the block is not the solution.”
Brazilians in Sao Paulo agreed.
“I’m losing loads of time and wasting money,” said João Valério dos Santos, a 38-year-old general contractor. “I have specific WhatsApp groups I use to speak to workers or clients or friends, and all of that is down.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.