Via a multitude of reports and outlets comes the news that a judge in Brazil has ordered WhatsApp to be shut down for 48 hours due to the company "not cooperating" with an investigation into the company prompted by its telcom rivals. Additionally, the Brazilian congress is preparing a number of draconian bills that could damage or shut down social media (or the whole internet) in Brazil, and allow the government further rights to spy on and control its own population.
In a general sense, the WhatsApp shutdown is symptomatic of what is happening in multiple industries as new technologies disrupt old business models. Taxi companies are freaking out about Uber, the hotel industry worries about Airbnb, and now telecommunications companies are trying to get WhatsApp out of the way due to the fact 10 million people have dropped their cell phone plans in what is called the "WhatsApp effect."
WhatsApp is one of the most popular ways to communicate in Brazil, with 93 million users. 93% of internet users also use WhatsApp. The movement towards free apps like WhatsApp, especially for Brazil's poorer citizens, should be unsurprising though, considering the country has some of the most expensive cell phone rates in the world.
Now this dispute, where telcoms are trying to get WhatsApp's voice and text service shuttered as an unregulated and illegal business, have lead to the service being shut down for two days as the court sorts through the matter. Julie Ruvolo of TechCrunch (who has the most thorough write-up of the issue and is well worth reading) put it more succinctly in her article covering the controversy, stating that "a WhatsApp shut-down [is] akin to taking half the country off the electricity grid because of an industry squabble over the impending threat of solar power."
Brazil is unique in relation to social media because its population is nuts over it. As Ruvolo notes, Brazil is "the #2 or #3 audience on every major global social platform, and on a per-user basis, Brazilians spend almost double the time on social media as Americans."
The judge's order on WhatsApp comes amid a growing fear that Brazil's conservative congress is making moves that could cut off access to the whole social web. This is a reversal from the recent past, when Brazil enacted "Marco Civil" in response to the revelations from Edward Snowden that the U.S. had spied on Brazil. Marco Civil basically acts as an internet Bill of Rights, guaranteeing net neutrality, privacy, and the rights of free speech.
Now, due to a spiraling scandal and recent economic downturn, opponents of measures like Marco Civil dominate Brazil's congress. The most powerful person in the legislative body, Eduardo Cunha, is a former telco lobbyist who has been pushing bills that would dismantle the Marco Civil, and would, by some interpretations of the law, effectively criminalize the use of social media.
One bill, nicknamed "O Espião" ("Big Spy" in Portuguese) would require someone to enter personal identifying information like a tax ID, a home address, and a phone number, just to access the internet or an app. That information would be required to be held by companies like Google and Facebook for three years, and be accessible to police with a court order.
Another part of the bill would allow politicians to censor information on the internet at will, not just removed from search indexes like Europe's 'right to be forgotten' but completely removed from the web. Another bill would "make it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail for anyone to film, photograph or capture the voice of a person without their express authorization," which would essentially remove the visual internet from existence in Brazil.
All these issues have arisen from a very conservative and older legislative branch coming into conflict with a very large youth demographic that is using apps like WhatsApp and social media to organize themselves into politically active movements. Social media was used to organize the huge protests against the recent World Cup held in Brazil, and fight against widespread police violence against black Brazilians.