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Brazilians Will Always Remember the Great WhatsApp Blackout of 2016

Why the program beloved as “ZapZap” matters so much in Brazil.

On Monday, Brazilians faced something more serious than the ongoing impeachment of their president when a judge banished WhatsApp for 24 hours.

The free messaging service is the most used app in Brazil, a country addicted to instant messages. Half of Brazilians rely on it. That’s 100 million people. Brazilian mobile operators, like Claro, Vivo, and TIM, charge high fees. But the minimum wage is just $225 a month, so what many people do is buy prepaid phones and use WhatsApp through a Wi-Fi connection.

They call it “ZapZap” for short.

How serious are Brazilians about instant messaging? “After WhatsApp ban, son discovers mom living under same roof,” went a joke on social media.

Even telephone calls are now uncool. In Brazil, ringtones, when played aloud, receive disapproving looks. No more Pink Floyd ringers. Instead you use WhatsApp: “Are you busy? May I call you?”

The judge who shut it down, from the small Northeastern state of Sergipe, had ordered mobile carriers to block access to WhatsApp for 72 hours, claiming that Facebook, which owns the service, wasn't coӧperating with a criminal investigation. The fine for noncompliance was $150,000 a day.

It ranks as one of the largest communications outages in history. And it has happened before. In December, another judge blocked WhatsApp for a few hours and, in March, Facebook's vice president for Latin America operations, Diego Dzodan, was detained for not complying with police requests for WhatsApp messages.

According to Facebook, it can’t do it. Not even its staff has access to WhatsApp messages due to end-to-end encryption (see “Brazil’s WhatsApp Ban Is a Harbinger of International Encryption Battles”).

The same isn’t true of Facebook messages. Over the last six months of 2015, Brazil asked Facebook for information about 2,673 accounts. That ranked it sixth among governments after the U.S. (at 30,041 requests), India (7,018), the U.K., Germany, and France.

Homo sapiens is a social animal, and Brazilians may be the most social of all. After the ban began, one million people downloaded another messaging app, Telegram. That tied up mobile operators who weren't able to process all the SMS verification messages sent to start the app. Others found refuge on Slack, Skype, Soma, and Gtalk. On people’s Facebook pages, a message suggested that Brazilians could use its Messenger app instead.

On Tuesday afternoon, a different judge was able to overturn the ban in an appeals court, and WhatsApp was restored after lunchtime.

Facebook quickly replaced its message: “WhatsApp is back, you can now connect with friends and family, download it here.”

Everywhere in Brazil, on and offline, people shouted “It’s back!” Now that was something to remember.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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