The decision, which impacted more than 100 million Brazilians who use WhatsApp, brings to light a familiar issue that has been stirring in Europe and the United States these past few weeks: Data encryption and the role of social media companies in assisting law enforcement officials during criminal cases.
In a nutshell, government officials feel out of the loop and believe tech companies like Facebook should do a better job handing over user information and proactively hunt down troublemakers. Tech companies like Facebook believe they’re protecting user privacy; they help when they’re required to.
The court case in Brazil centered around drug traffickers who used WhatsApp to message about specific crimes, according to Reuters. WhatsApp offers end to end encryption, which means that messages sent using the app are only readable on a user’s phone, not Facebook or WhatsApp servers. That makes it impossible for WhatsApp to collect those messages or hand them over to authorities, Facebook argues.
The ban didn’t sit well in Menlo Park, Calif., where Facebook has its headquarters. In a post early Thursday morning, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed frustration with the decision a few hours after WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum did the same.
“This is a sad day for Brazil,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I am stunned that our efforts to protect people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp.”
Until now, the battle between these two sides has mostly been all bark, no bite. But the decision in Brazil shows just how tense this issue is becoming. Brazil isn’t the only country chipping at Facebook. In Europe, lawmakers are trying to make it illegal for users under the age of 16 to use social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Proponents of the decision argue that it’s a way to help protect young users and their privacy.
The relationship between lawmakers and social networks will be a critical one moving forward. Users clearly want to use these services WhatsApp has nearly 900 million total users around the world so the apps aren’t going away. This was a temporary outage. It’s also a meaningful outage and one that should keep companies like Facebook and Twitter on their toes. The battle between user privacy and real world safety is heating up.