WhatsApp overturns three-day ban in Brazil. Now what?

The messaging service was blocked after it refused to share users' data for criminal investigations. But are Brazilian authorities barking up the wrong tree?

Messaging service WhatsApp is up and running again in Brazil after it overturned a court order that had determined its suspension for three days.

The Facebook-owned messaging tool was banned as a result of a ruling by a judge from a small town in the northeastern state of Sergipe, who ordered the suspension that started at 2pm on Monday (2).

The latest ban came as a result of Facebook's failure to comply with a police request for a conversation that took place in a WhatsApp messaging group, as well as other data that included geolocation. This information was considered crucial for organized crime and drug trafficking investigations.

Facebook appealed the decision and the service was reestablished today (3), after a ban that lasted just over 24 hours.

This is the latest episode of an ongoing battle between WhatsApp's owner Facebook and the country's authorities over users' data access. Over the last six months, there have been two other attempts to suspend the service, also due to the company's failure to provide personal data to the police.

With more than 100 million registered accounts, WhatsApp is heavily used by Brazilians for both personal and business communication. The suspension of the service was heavily criticized by users - and even the country's telecommunications regulator has conceded that the ban was a step too far.

"WhatsApp should comply with legal demands within its technical means, but evidently, blocking it is not the solution," Anatel's president João Rezende said in a statement.

Some Brazilian commentators have been debating about whether the right of citizens to remain safe from crime is more important than the right to privacy. But are they barking up the wrong tree?

Brazilian authorities need to think long and hard about a complete redefinition of who holds data on us and why.

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Facebook is a private company who monetizes data and messages are certainly being scanned to optimize its advertising campaigns, but what the company is really trying to say in this ongoing fight with the authorities here is that it can't be held responsible for every outcome of every message. Should we be shooting the messenger?

Instead of focusing on a single tool, regardless of how many millions use it right now, Brazilian authorities must realize that the legal arguments that have been used to enforce decisions such as the WhatsApp bans in Brazil so far are something from the past.

We need to think of access to every word we say - not just about WhatsApp today. The authorities can target WhatApp today because of the size of its current user base, but soon we may all have moved on to a new communication app. Then what?

What about when we move on to a not-too-distant future where voice controlled-devices will be ubiquitous and our entire life will be recorded, will the government be able to scan everything we say, all the time?

We need people who can think of how to retain some privacy in a reality that will soon be upon us where absolutely everything is recorded. Should your employer know how often your smoke or drink, who you hang out with and where? Would you be surprised if your employer demands the right to monitor you? This may sound like a dystopian novel, but how is it different to monitoring conversations?

The reality is that we need a trans-national personal data act, something like a global bill of online rights, new laws and guidelines. Brazil had been making progress on this with a set of governance rules for the Internet, but the latest events are making us all look rather stupid.

What authorities fail to realize in Brazil and other countries is that we are in a new age of information. We need to think very seriously about how we manage data before we need to face up to a zero privacy reality, just because we never defined what private really is.

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