Earlier this week, a Brazilian judge ordered a 48-hour shutdown of WhatsApp, the most popular messaging service in the South American country, after it failed to comply with a court order to provide information on one of its users. More than 90 percent of internet users subscribe to the service, which has prompted Brazilian phone companies — who charge the highest rates on the planet — to call it an “illegal telephone service” on the basis that it doesn’t have the same overheads as they do. All this sounds rather like the brouhaha at the beginning of the century, when telecoms players protested at Skype’s “piracy” (the term used by Telefonica Brasil). They do things differently in Brazil, it would seem.
The WhatsApp shutdown wasn’t about “piracy”, but instead the company’s refusal to provide information about a customer involved in a trial, and should be seen in the context of the Brazilian government’s steady erosion of internet neutrality. Brazil’s Congress, the credibility of which has been eaten away by institutionalized corruption (the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment), has fought tooth and nail against a civil rights framework passed in 2014 that aims to guarantee internet neutrality and privacy, freedom of expression, along with limited responsibility on the part of telecoms providers to share their customers’ information.
Opposition to the civil rights framework has been led by telecoms companies and politicians obsessed with controlling the internet. At the head of this unholy alliance is the president of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, a former lobbyist for the telecoms sector and who faces corruption charges. He wants to pass laws that would require Brazilians to identify themselves on the internet, giving their personal details, to be stored for three years by their internet provider, and that in turn the government could demand to see, without a judicial order. It has been dubbed “the big spy” by Brazilians. Congress sees the internet as its enemy, a place where journalists and civic associations are free to criticize its members, many of whom are implicated in corruption scandals. Rather than do something about corruption, it seems easier to just shut down the internet and silence the population.
Brazilians are among the planet’s most active internet users, and have carried out many successful protest campaigns against their (mostly) wretched politicians, for example on the eve of last year’s World Cup, they highlighted the need for other investment priorities.
Corruption, draconian laws, absurd bans (WhatsApp’s main rival, Telegram, reported one million new users in one day following the shutdown) and politically bankrupt. The internet has become the barometer of the democratic crisis in a country that not long ago was considered one of the world’s most exciting emerging economies. Little wonder that Brazilians, long weary of their country’s failure to meet its enormous potential, like to tell visitors with a sardonic smile: “Brazil: the country of the future… and it always will be.”
(En español, aquí)