Brazil, WhatsApp drama escalates

Mar 01, 2016, 1:45 PM EST
Source: Álvaro Ibáñez/flickr
Source: Álvaro Ibáñez/flickr

The news that federal police in Brazil arrested Diego Dzodan, vice president of Facebook for Latin America, sets up a new mess for Facebook in the country. Not to mention that it is emblematic of Brazil’s ongoing tribulations with U.S.-based tech giants. Reuters reports that Brazilian police apprehended Dzodan after Facebook-owned WhatsApp failed to cooperate with judicial orders in an investigation on drug trafficking in Sergipe state. 

This is not the first time Brazil has cracked down on hugely popular social networks for “failing to comply” with judicial orders concerning the retrieval of user information. And it is not the first time that the government has targeted and made use of tech executives. Of course, it does point to a larger, consistent rift between the Brazilian government and tech companies, as well as the global concern (making headlines right now re: Apple and the F.B.I.) over forcing tech companies to hand over user data in judicial matters.

Brazil's issues with American social media companies also highlight the disconnect between the government’s uneasiness with foreign tech and Brazilians’ passion for it. Brazil’s digital culture is thriving and has been for years; its social media economy is massive. A report from late 2015 noted that, among the country’s internet users, around 92% are connected to social networks, and the average time they spend daily on social media is 3.8 hours — one hour more than U.S. users. Social networks abound, from both native companies and foreign ones. That same report noted that 89% of Brazil’s users are continually logged on to Facebook, and the 87% are on WhatsApp. Clearly there is a wide gap between the favor users place on these entities and the way the government sees them.

In one sense, this is a classic problem: a government having little understanding of how to appropriately engage with digital forces regarding judicial matters. In another sense, Brazil seems to veer towards rash action, having recently wrestled with another WhatsApp-related fiasco in which one judge had to lift a court-ordered, 48-hour suspension of the app after another judge said the company failed to comply with judicial rulings to share information in a criminal case. This time, essentially holding Dzodan hostage — which is what it looks like to many — until WhatsApp complies, is drastic.

Indeed, rash action isn’t unfamiliar to President Dilma Rousseff regarding Facebook and its entities. After the Snowden leaks of 2013, Rousseff tried and failed to pass legislation requiring American companies that process data about Brazilian users to establish data centers within Brazil. The Dzodan arrest is another headlining action from Brazilian officials who seem to be scrambling for ways to wrangle the explosive nature of social media in the country while using it to their advantage.