WhatsApp ban in Brazil parallels Uber fight in Canada

Traditional industries in both countries seeking shutdowns of disruptive services.

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Last week saw cabbies in Toronto demand a shutdown of Uber and this week saw a parallel in Brazil – except that it involved instant messaging and not taxis.

A Sao Paolo judge on Wednesday ordered a 48-hour shutdown of WhatsApp after the messaging service refused to provide information in a criminal prosecution. The ban was going to affect more than 100 million users, with the Facebook-owned service hugely popular in the country.

The nature of the criminal case in question and the identity of the petitioner responsible for seeking the ban are not known, but speculation is rampant that Brazil’s wireless companies may have something to do with it.

Just like taxi companies in Canada are crying foul over Uber taking their business without having to answer to regulations, so too are Brazil’s telecoms arguing that WhatsApp is a social evil.

The app, which enables free text messages and is therefore taking money out of the wireless carriers’ pockets, is “pure piracy,” according to Vivo president Amos Genish.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t pleased with the court’s decision. “Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open internet,” he wrote in a post. “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.”

A second judge ordered the ban to be lifted on Thursday, saying “it does not look reasonable that millions of users be affected as a result of the company’s inertia to provide information.” The judge suggested a more reasonable course of action for WhatsApp’s non-compliance in a court case would be a larger fine.

Both situations – taxis and Uber and wireless carriers and WhatsApp – are marked by traditional businesses having trouble adjusting to disruptive new technologies. Relying on courts to ease that pain is proving to not only be messy, but an increasingly untenable approach.

There is a silver lining to the near-ban of WhatsApp, though – virtual private network providers made a considerable amount of hay. Toronto-based SurfEasy, for one, says the ban resulted in more than 400,000 new users signing up before noon on Thursday.

“The new users are signing up from Brazil, so as you would suspect, the decision to temporarily block WhatsApp motivated people to seek out a solution to access a private and free internet,” a spokesperson said.

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