Brazil lawmakers propose bill to shield WhatsApp

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A 3D printed Whatsapp  logo is seen in front of a displayed stock graph in this illustration taken April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
A 3D printed Whatsapp logo is seen in front of a displayed stock graph in this illustration taken April 28, 2016.

Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

A Brazilian congressional commission on Wednesday recommended a bill that forbids authorities from blocking popular messaging applications, just two days after a judicial order left 100 million Brazilians without Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp.

A Brazilian judge on Tuesday overturned a 72-hour suspension of the application used by roughly half the population of the South American country, triggering popular outcry over its second judicial suspension in only five months.

The reason for the freeze was not made public due to legal secrecy in an ongoing case in a Sergipe state court, but authorities have in the past demanded data from the Facebook’s encrypted messaging service.

A congressional commission investigating cyber crimes proposed removing messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, from a bill that regulates the suspension of websites and other applications used for crimes such as drugs and arms trafficking.

“This way the legislation makes it very clear that judges cannot block these applications, because those suspensions do not fulfill their objectives,” lawmaker Sandro Alex, who helped draft the bill, said in a WhatsApp message.

The legislation will now have to pass through several other congressional committees before being put to vote in the floor of the lower and upper house.

Critics have said the bill would actually make it easier for judges to shut down websites and applications, hurting the freedom of speech of internet users.

The judge who ordered Monday’s 72-hour suspension, Marcel Maia Montalvao, in March ordered the imprisonment of a Brazil-based Facebook executive in a dispute over law enforcement demands for data from the company’s encrypted messaging service for use in a drug trafficking investigation.

The executive was freed after about 24 hours, when an appeals court overturned his arrest.

WhatsApp had said in a statement on Monday that it was “disappointed” at the judge’s decision to suspend its services, saying it had done its utmost to cooperate with Brazilian tribunals but did not possess the information the court was requesting.

The company has said in the past that it does not store encrypted information from WhatsApp messages. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg had urged Brazilians in a Facebook post to gather outside Congress on Wednesday to demand the messaging service never be blocked again.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Marguerita Choy)