- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp was ordered offline by a Brazilian judge Tuesday for the third time in under a year.

Rio de Janeiro Judge Daniela Barbosa issued the ruling Tuesday morning ordering Brazilian telephone companies to “immediately” begin blocking access to the secure-messaging application, which is reportedly used by more than three-quarters of the country’s smartphone owners.

The judge’s decision was handed down after Facebook repeatedly refused to intercept WhatsApp messages sought by authorities in connection with an unspecified criminal investigation taking place in Caxias, outside Rio.

“The order was not complied with, despite being issued three times,” wrote the judge, “thus requiring the adoption of coercive measures determined by this judgement.”

“WhatsApp is blocked across the whole national territory,” a spokesman for the Rio de Janeiro court confirmed to AFP.

Acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, WhatsApp boasts roughly 100 million users in Brazil, making it the most popular mobile messaging application in the country. Because the app secures communications with end-to-end encryption, however, the contents of messages can only been deciphered by their authorized senders and recipients.

“[This] ensures only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp,” the company said when it first rolled-out the feature.

Brazilian authorities have twice suspended WhatsApp twice before for failing to supply investigators with unencrypted messages, and earlier this month a federal court in the state of Paraná agreed to freeze roughly $6 million worth of Facebook’s assets after it refused to decrypt conversations sought by authorities.

Kevin Bankston, a director with New America’s Open Tech Institute, said on Twitter that the latest court order is not only a “direct attack” on encryption, but an assault on free expression that’s becoming “worrisomely routine.”

Telecommunications companies that refuse to heed the court’s latest order risk facing daily fines of 50,000 reals, or roughly $15,265 USD. Telecommunication companies Hi, Nextel, TIM, Vivo and Claro told Brazil’s Globo news site that they will issue a statement responding to the court order.

“In recent months, people from all across Brazil have rejected judicial blocks of services like WhatsApp. Indiscriminate steps like these threaten people’s ability to communicate, to run their businesses, and to live their lives,” Facebook said in a statement to technology-news website Recode. “As we’ve said in the past, we cannot share information we don’t have access to. We hope to see this block lifted as soon as possible.”

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