Did a Brazilian Judge Try to Use Marco Civil to Shut Down WhatsApp Across the Country?

Court order wants whatsapp to shut down

Court order wants WhatsApp to shut down

A Brazilian state court annulled a decision by a municipal judge to suspend WhatApp across the country. Appeals court judge Raimundo Nonato da Costa Alencar, from the Justice Court of the state of Piauí, claimed a nationwide suspension of the messaging application is not ‘reasonable’. His sentence, published on February 26, says:

A suspensão de serviços afeta milhões de pessoas em prol de investigação local. A princípio, independentemente do teor da ordem descumprida, em hipótese alguma se justifica a interrupção de acesso a todo o serviço.

The suspension of the service affects millions of people for the sake of a local investigation. In principle, regardless of the degree of WhatsApp's failure to comply with the requests, in no way it justifies the interruption of the whole service.

On February 11, Brazilian municipal judge Luiz de Moura Correia, from the city of Teresina, capital of Piauí state, issued a court order demanding that Internet service providers and mobile network operators throughout the country temporarily suspend the messaging application WhatsApp. 

The order gave the companies 24 hours to shut the app down, and stated that WhatsApp has been refusing to collaborate with police investigations related to crimes involving children and teenagers.  

Two companies, Claro and Embratel, filed an appeal to which the state judge later complied.

The Marco Civil connection

WhatsApp had not been suspended and kept working normally in Brazil, but the judge's initial decision went viral. The hashtag #SemWhatsAppEu (#WithoutWhatsApp) made the worldwide trending topics on Twitter on February 26. According to Topsy, a social analytics service, the hashtag was tweeted about 25K times in 4 days. 

‘Zueira’ (the fun) has no limits. #WithoutWhatsAppI (the photo caption says: After the Piauí judge's demand of suspending WhatsApp, Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Facebook and WhatsApp, said he would buy the state of Piauí. The value is being negotiated with president Dilma.

#WithoutWhatsAppI hahaha not.

Kátia Esteves, the chief of the police branch for the protection of children and adolescents in Teresina, said the court order was based on the Marco Civil bill, which Internet experts consider to be the best existing civil-rights based law for the Internet in the world. Esteves told reporters last week:

Com o Marco Civil da Internet, basta que o serviço esteja sendo oferecido no Brasil – e ele está sendo oferecido – e ter representante no país para que possa ser suspenso. No caso, o representante no Brasil do Whatsapp, apesar de ser uma empresa americana, é o Facebook.

With the Marco Civil law, it's only necessary that the service is being offered in Brazil — and it is — and have its representation in Brazil for it to be suspended. In that case, the representation of WhatsApp in Brazil, though it is an American company, is Facebook.

Marco Civil is the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, a law that establishes rules on internet neutrality, privacy, data retention and intermediary liability, amongst other issues. It was sanctioned by President Dilma Rousseff in April 2014.

Experts in Internet law Dennis Antonialli, Francisco Brito Cruz and Mariana Giorgetti Valente published an article on their blog Deu nos Autos, hosted by newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo's website, where they explained the Marco Civil connection:

O Marco Civil da Internet, lei aplicável neste caso, possibilita sanções a empresas estrangeiras de Internet que se recusem a cumprir a legislação brasileira em seu artigo 12. Dentre as sanções possíveis, está a suspensão temporária das atividades – e até mesmo a sua proibição. Mas essa é a penalidade mais drástica que pode ser adotada. Outras alternativas seriam advertência e multa (que pode chegar até 10% do faturamento do grupo econômico no Brasil).

Fica a discussão se a medida adotada pelo juiz foi proporcional. Apesar do descumprimento de uma ordem judicial configurar um fato grave e que deve ser reprimido, deve-se levar em conta o prejuízo que uma ordem deste tipo pode causar a milhões de brasileiros.

Marco Civil, the applicable law in this case, allows sanctions to foreign internet companies who refuse to comply with Brazilian legislation (in its 12th article). Among the possible sanctions, there is a temporary suspension of its activities — even its prohibition. But this is the most drastic penalty that could be imposed. Other alternatives are warnings and fines (that could be up to 10% of the company's revenue in Brazil).

What follows is the discussion of whether the judge's ruling is proportional. The failure to comply with court orders is serious and should be reprimanded, but one should remember the losses an order of this kind could cause to millions of Brazilians.

However, Paulo Rená, director of the Beta Institute for Internet and Democracy and manager of a project of the Marco Civil bill, has a different opinion. He told Global Voices over email:

Na minha leitura, o Art. 12, mesmo quando prevê suspensão e proibição, não chega ao ponto de autorizar que a ordem judicial seja direcionada aos provedores de conexão. Em uma analogia grotesca, seria como uma ordem judicial ordenando às empresas de perdágio que impedissem os ônibus urbano de circular por um bairro xis no qual houve uma série de crimes dentro de alguns veículos coletivos. A empresa de pedágio não se submetem, ao meu ver, às sanções aplicáveis às empresas de ônibus. Já seria bizarro o suficiente determinar a proibição da circulação de ônibus, mas envolver uma terceira categoria de empresas ultrapassa a questão.

In my reading, Article 12, even though it provides for suspension and prohibition, doesn't go to the point of authorizing that the court order to be directed to internet providers. In a perhaps grotesque analogy, it will be like a court order forbidding toll collecting companies to forbid urban buses to circulate through a determined neighborhood where crimes inside buses have happened. The toll companies are not subject to the applicable sanctions to bus companies. It will be bizarre enough to demand the prohibition of bus circulation, but to involve a different category of companies in it surpasses the issue.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and has a Brazilian office, said it wouldn't comment because under its contract the social network company is not legally responsible for the messaging service.

Similar cases

In 2007, a São Paulo state court demanded that YouTube take down from its website an intimate video of actress Daniela Cicarelli and her partner. Since YouTube claimed it would be impossible to prevent the republications of the video, the court decided to block the website in Brazil, which affected millions of people. YouTube remained inaccessible for about 24 hours. The legal strategy was the same: the judge demanded internet providers to block traffic to YouTube's servers.

A different strategy was used for blocking the Secret app last year. The app, which is meant to share personal secrets anonymously, was being systematically used to bully, with users sharing names and intimate information of other people. In this case, the blockade was directed to app stores (Apple Store and Google Play) rather than through mobile operators. For the Secret app, the legality of the application itself was put in question, as anonymity is forbidden by the Brazilian Constitution. The app also didn't have terms and conditions available in Portuguese, which also contradicts the Brazilian Code of Consumer Defense.

At that time, the state judge responsible for the ruling wrote in his sentence:

“A liberdade de expressão não constitui um direito absoluto, sendo inúmeras as hipóteses em que o seu exercício entra em conflito com outros direitos fundamentais ou bens jurídicos coletivos constitucionalmente tutelados, que serão equacionados mediante uma ponderação de interesses, de modo a garantir o direito à honra, privacidade, igualdade e dignidade humana e, até mesmo, proteção da infância e adolescência.

Freedom of expression doesn't constitute an absolute right, there are numerous possibilities its exercise can be in conflict with other fundamental rights or other collective legal interests constitutionally provided for, which would be solved by debating interests in order to guarantee the right to honor, privacy, equality, human dignity and, even, protection in childhood and adolescence.

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