monday, 2 march of 2015

WhatsApp’s Near-Suspension in Brazil Highlights Legal Concerns for Web Firms

The decision by a county judge that nearly forced the suspension of Facebook Inc.’s Whatsapp throughout Brazil this week has added to legal concerns for Web firms in the fast-growing market.

Judge Luiz Moura Correia, who presides over a county investigations court in the northeastern state of Piaui, ordered telecommunications operators to suspend access to the popular smartphone messaging application, alleging that the company hadn’t responded to subpoenas for information related to a local police investigation. Another judge in Piaui overturned the suspension decision late Thursday after backlash from the telecom companies and other critics.

The near-suspension of Whatsapp, which was the most downloaded app last year in the world’s fourth-largest smartphone market, underscores the legal hurdles and difficulties that U.S. web firms such as Facebook and Google Inc. face in protecting the privacy of users located around the world. The Brazilian and U.S. governments have an agreement on which courts can request information from Internet companies located on each other’s soil. But Brazilian officials including President Dilma Rousseff have long complained that the process has proved slow and cumbersome.

Officials with a local child-protection police unit in Piaui said that the company had failed to comply with court orders for user information since 2013. Piaui police said they are investigating a child pornography scheme in which a Whatsapp user was allegedly coercing minors into sending pornographic images of themselves, but can’t disclose whether that investigation is related to Judge Correria’s order because the court proceedings are confidential.

Court officials and police declined to provide more detail on the kind of information they want from Whatsapp. The company has said in the past that it deletes messages from its servers immediately after they are delivered to recipients. But Internet experts say that companies like Whatsapp may have other data valuable to a police investigation, such as metadata that could help pinpoint the origin of a message or a photo.

Brandon McCormick, a spokesman Whatsapp, declined to comment.

Whatsapp, based in Mountain View, Calif., and without offices in Brazil, isn’t the first Internet company to face court-ordered suspension in the country. Google’s Youtube was also temporarily blocked in 2007 after a Brazilian model sued the company to have paparazzi videos of herself and her boyfriend removed from the site. The decision was overturned, but not until after some carriers had already blocked the service for several days.

To address some of these conflicts, the Brazilian government passed an Internet law last year called Marco Civil. But terms in the law about jurisdiction are broad and need further explanation, experts say, leading to a wide range of interpretations including the one Judge Correia made to force suspension of Whatsapp.

Going strictly in accordance with the spirit of Marco Civil, “websites can be responsible for third party content and can be held liable” financially, said Ronaldo Lemos, executive director of the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro, who is also an attorney. “But [they] can never be blocked or filtered or prevented from operating,” he said, because that could be considered a form of censorship.

Meanwhile suspension orders carry negative implications for both Brazilian and foreign Internet companies offering services to one of the world’s largest Internet markets by number of users, Mr. Lemos said. “The decision was suspended but similar cases will continue to happen,” he said. “That is incentive for companies to stop offering services to Brazil, and I think that is really bad.”

Brazil, with a population of about 200 million, is one of the largest markets outside the U.S. for Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Telecom carriers criticized the move against Whatsapp as well. SindiTelebrasil, a telecom industry association, said Thursday that “The measure may cause huge damage to millions of Brazilians who use the services, essential in many cases for their day-to-day lives, including at work … For SindiTelebrasil, the measure is disproportionate.”

(Published by The Wall Street Journal – February 27, 2015)

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