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Court order shuts down WhatsApp in Brazil, again

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Irate Brazilians found themselves without the popular WhatsApp smartphone messaging application for the second time in six months on Monday, after a court blocked the service for 72 hours.

[SAO PAULO] Irate Brazilians found themselves without the popular WhatsApp smartphone messaging application for the second time in six months on Monday, after a court blocked the service for 72 hours.

A flurry of angry commentary immediately broke out online after a small-town judge blocked WhatsApp nationwide because Facebook, its owner, failed to hand over information requested in a drug-trafficking investigation.

The court order from Judge Marcel Montalvao in the northeastern town of Lagarto, in Sergipe state, shut down WhatsApp from 2pm (1700 GMT).

According to Brazilian media reports, drug traffickers targeted in the investigation had been using WhatsApp to discuss their business.

It is the latest standoff between the Brazilian authorities and Facebook, which has said it has no technical means for cooperating with such requests.

Facebook's vice-president for Latin America, Diego Dzodan, was arrested in March over the same case. Police said they were holding the Argentine national responsible for "repeated non-compliance with court orders."

Another judge in Sergipe state ordered his release the following day, ruling the arrest amounted to "unlawful coercion." WhatsApp was previously suspended in Brazil in December over another case.

Shocked, cranky Brazilians woke up on December 17 to find their WhatsApp service had been shut down overnight, leaving many without a key means of communication.

WhatsApp is widely used in Brazil, where cell phone fees for texting and calls are among the highest in the world.

The free app is installed on nine in 10 smartphones in the country.

The December blackout ended after about 12 hours, when a higher court in Sao Paulo state threw out the two-day suspension.

On that occasion, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg called it "a sad day for Brazil," noting the country's history of support for an open Internet.

The companies deny obstructing justice and say they have done whatever they can to help.

Monday's shutdown drew disbelieving, sometimes obscenity-laced reactions online.

Like many Brazilians who rely on the service, Twitter user Acaua Tavares reacted with the Portuguese acronym "PQP," roughly equivalent to "WTF?" in English.

"WhatsApp blocked again, PQP! That's Brazil," he wrote.

Many commenters reacted with a single question: "Again?" Brazil's five cell phone providers all complied with the court order. Media reports said they would have faced fines of US$140,000 a day for failing to do so.

During the last shutdown, the providers appealed the court order, arguing it affected millions of people unconnected to the case.

A Facebook spokesman in Brazil declined to comment.

Google has also found itself in the firing line in Brazil.

Three years ago, the search engine giant's top Brazil executive was accused of breaking election laws when he refused to remove videos on YouTube that were critical of a mayoral candidate in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

The cases echo Apple's showdown with the US government over its refusal to cooperate with the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a mass killing by a couple in San Bernardino, California, last year.

The FBI said national security was at stake, while Apple said it was taking a stand against government intrusion into privacy.

Ultimately, the government managed to hack the phone without Apple's help.

AFP