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Brazil shut down WhatsApp for roughly 100 million people for 12 hours

Updated at 10:15am ET.

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, was ordered by a Brazilian judge to shut down for two days. The ban took effect at midnight local time (9pm ET on Dec. 16), but amid public outcry a court in São Paulo overturned the ruling and reinstated the service after around 12 hours (link in Portuguese).

Brazil’s telecoms industry, which sees so-called “over the top” voice and messaging services delivered over the internet as a threat to its business model, has been lobbying the government for months to declare these services illegal, according to TechCrunch. But the telecoms may not be behind the short-lived shutdown: Reuters reports that a local TV network said the court order stemmed from a criminal case involving one of São Paulo’s largest gangs, which used WhatsApp “in the commission of crimes.”

WhatsApp was reportedly ordered multiple times over the summer to halt its service, and after failing to do so, judge Sandra Regina Nostre Marques ordered the service to be blocked from Brazil’s end. The majority of the details of the case are being kept secret, which is permissible under Brazilian law.

The São Paulo court said in a release today that “it does not seem reasonable that millions of users are affected” by the case and ordered the ban overturned.

Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s CEO, had voiced his concern over judge Marques’ action on Facebook: “We are disappointed in the short-sighted decision to cut off access to WhatsApp, a communication tool that so many Brazilians have come to depend on, and sad to see Brazil isolate itself from the rest of the world.”

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg also relayed a similar message, while also reminding the Brazilians that they can still use Facebook Messenger to talk with others. “This is a sad day for Brazil,” Zuckerberg said on Facebook, in English and Portuguese. “Until today, Brazil has been an ally in creating an open internet. Brazilians have always been among the most passionate in sharing their voice online.”

WhatsApp is used by roughly 90% of Brazil’s internet population, TechCrunch said, and the BBC reported that prices for telecom services are often as high as they are in the UK, even though Brazilian wages are about two-thirds lower. This means that many choose to keep in touch with friends and family via internet messaging services, rather than pricier voice calls or text messages.

During the WhatsApp ban, Brazilians sought temporary refuge in other communication that weren’t blocked by the court order, such as Viber or Facebook Messenger. Telegram Messenger says some 1 million Brazilians have signed up for its service in a matter of hours.

This isn’t the only internet controversy roiling Brazil these days: There is a bill in the works that would potentially require all Brazilians to provide their home address and tax information to access any site on the web, with sites like Facebook and Google required to store that information for up to three years.

Facebook wasn’t immediately available for comment, but Zuckerberg added in his statement: “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. We hope the Brazilian courts quickly reverse course.”

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