Brazil court lifts suspension of Facebook's WhatsApp service

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian judge on Thursday ordered the lifting of a 48-hour suspension of the services in Brazil of Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp phone-messaging application, overturning an order from a lower court.

An illustration photo shows Whatsapp App logos on a mobile phone in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The ban, which went into effect at midnight Wednesday, lasted about 12 hours until an appeals court judge overturned it.

The interruption of WhatsApp’s text message and Internet telephone service caused outrage in Latin America’s largest country, where the company estimates it has 100 million personal users, and led to angry exchanges on the floor of Congress.

WhatsApp is installed on 92.5 percent of Android devices in Brazil, making it the most installed app in the country, according to SimilarWeb, an internet intelligence and marketing company.

Rival messaging system Telegram said on Twitter that it received 1 million downloads in Brazil in one day due to the outage. Telegram was installed on 2.35 percent of android devices before the blackout and Facebook Messenger on 74 percent, SimilarWeb said.

A judge in Sao Bernardo do Campo, an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo, had ordered the suspension of WhatsApp’s services from midnight on Wednesday (0200 GMT Thursday). The order was made after the California-based company, despite a fine, failed to comply with two judicial rulings to share information in a criminal case.

“Considering the constitutional principles, it does not look reasonable that millions of users be affected as a result of the company’s inertia to provide information,” Judge Xavier de Souza from the 11th criminal court of Sao Paulo said in the ruling, recommending a higher fine be imposed on WhatsApp.

The incident highlighted growing international tensions between technology companies’ privacy concerns and national authorities’ efforts to use social media to recover information on possible criminal activities.

“Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open Internet,” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg posted after the interruption of WhatsApp’s services. “I am stunned that our efforts to protect people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp.”

According to Band News TV, the criminal case involves a drug trafficker linked to one of Sao Paulo’s most dangerous criminal gangs, the PCC, or First Command of the Capital. The trafficker allegedly used WhatsApp services while committing crimes, and the court wants access to his communications with others.

WhatsApp said it was unable, not unwilling, to comply.

“We’re disappointed that a judge would punish more than 100 million people across Brazil because we were unable to turn over information we didn’t have,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

WhatsApp is used by individuals, companies and federal and local governments to send messages and share pictures and videos.

On the floor of Congress, lawmakers expressed their frustration at the suspension.

“This is ridiculous,” yelled congressman Caio Narcio. “What about our freedom to communicate?”

The suspension appeared to affect WhatsApp users outside Brazil’s borders, as hundreds in Chile and Argentina took to social media on Thursday to complain that the messaging system was also interrupted in the two countries.

Chilean telecom provider VTR, owned by Liberty Global Inc, said it had re-established service to WhatsApp for its clients by using an “alternative international link.” Earlier it said that difficulty in accessing the app “originated outside of Chile,” without giving details.

Additional reporting by Silvio Cascione in Brasilia, Marcelo Teixeira in Sao Paulo and Rosalba O’Brien in Santiago; Editing by Leslie Adler, Dominic Evans, Lisa Von Ahn and Leslie Adler