The online communication tool WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) was blocked for 24 hours in Brazil earlier this week. This type of confrontation resembles the skirmishes of an early Cold War between states and Internet giants over the protection of “digital citizens”.
A judge from Brazil has ordered the country’s Internet providers to cut off the WhatsApp mobile app on Monday afternoon. Access was reinstated the next afternoon (by another judge).
The reason for this order to cut off access to the application stems from WhatsApp’s categorical refusal to provide user data on its network (data that WhatsApp denies to have in its possession).
To understand the importance of the balance of power, know that WhatsApp has 100 million users in Brazil. If it were a country, WhatsApp would be the thirteenth on the list of the most populous countries in the world.
Not the first confrontation, nor the last
This wrestling is not the first. Brazil has already done the same blow to WhatsApp last December.
This event is reminiscent of the recent confrontation between the FBI and Apple. In both cases, it was a judgment ordering access to personal data of users.
The number of such confrontations will increase as the digital world invades every aspect of our public and private life.
This week, millions and millions of Brazilian citizens were caught in the midst of these skirmishes. From a distance, the confrontation does not seem to concern us. Yet she should.
Three observations that can be drawn
First observation: a country is able to control its borders, even in the virtual world.
Since access to the mobile Internet goes through telephone operators, and these are subject to the laws, a country seems able to control these “virtual mini-airports” that we have in our pockets.
Any country that takes the implementation of a digital plan seriously must know that it has this weapon in its arsenal.
Second observation: a digital giant places its legitimacy outside the law of the country.
Zuckerberg, president of Facebook, did not hide, in 2015, his surprise that the efforts to protect the data of its users generate such a counterattack of Brazil, a response that affects millions of Brazilians.
All citizens must now ask themselves who has a real concern for the right to private data. The situation suggests that it is not the government. Which act, some say.
Third observation: the citizen can place himself above the law of his country by using a foreign service.
I will not pass judgment on the validity of the decision or the true reasons of the judge who requires WhatsApp personal data of a user or to close the service. I will just assume that this personal data can be used to identify an offender to a local law or to prove (or exculpate) his guilt.
WhatsApp stated that its system was now encrypted end-to-end and that it did not have the means to know the data exchanged between users. The firm says it has no responsibility for the content of these data, because it has put in place a system that disempower, she said. The individual thus becomes sovereign by entering his system.
The real issue
States that are still waiting to develop a digital plan for their own existence in the current digital revolution risk being completely colonized by companies with diverse interests.
The fight here is not about who, the state or the Internet giant, is the good guy or the bad guy, but what are the levers that an elected government will actually have tomorrow to run the country – and not just to manage it as an accountant.
These cold-war skirmishes between states and Internet giants show that they could one day intervene directly in the affairs of the state in the name of a supreme interest (draped values like the right to privacy), just as countries have, in the course of history, said to have to intervene with their neighbor to protect the interests of their citizens.
With populations of 100 million or 1 billion users, these Internet giants seem to take the fate of their “digital citizens” very seriously.
The real tragedy is that it will soon become increasingly difficult to say clearly who we will applaud as a savior after the fight.
This is the drama of “dual nationality”, one real and one virtual. Because this virtual nationality seems more and more real.
As our second lead editor, Zelda Wiggins provides guidance on the stories Nebula Electronics reporters cover. She has been instrumental in making sure the content on the site is clear and accurate for our readers. Zelda prides herself on having clear and concise headlines without resorting to click bait titles. Zelda received a BA and and MA from Fordham University.