Supreme Court justice suspends Telegram in Brazil

telegram blocked in brazil
Illustration Anicka S/Shutterstock

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who oversees multiple investigations on organizations that spread misinformation on social media, issued a ruling on Friday ordering internet providers to remove access to instant messaging app Telegram in Brazil. 

Justice Moraes’ decision not only affects Telegram, but Brazil’s telecom sector as a whole. In the decision, he ordered that the president of Brazil’s telecom regulator Anatel should be promptly informed of the decision. Google and Apple, which make the app available to the vast majority of Brazilian smartphones, must also remove Telegram from their stores. Internet providers such as Claro, Oi, Tim, and Vivo were also mentioned, with calls for them to make it harder for citizens to access the messaging app.

Justice Moraes set a daily fine of BRL 100,000 (USD 19,930) for as long as the Telegram order is not complied with. Fines will also apply for persons who “use technological subterfuge to continue communicating through Telegram” in Brazil. In other words, this bars internet users in Brazil from using VPN services to access the messaging app through foreign servers — a measure that even authoritarian governments such as China’s have trouble enforcing.

The decision itself was confidential, having been reported directly to the companies involved. However, it was leaked on the Twitter account of an individual who identifies himself as a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro. Alexandre de Moraes ordered a new investigation to discover the identity of the leaker.

The decision comes as Brazilian authorities increase pressure on the Dubai-based platform, which has never cooperated with courts in efforts to curb misinformation. Just before the Carnival holiday, Justice Moraes had ordered the suspension of three messaging channels allegedly administered by far-right blogger Allan dos Santos — who is currently a fugitive of Brazilian justice.

The platform complied, but not immediately — and Mr. Santos created other channels to connect with his followers — one quickly amassed dozens of thousands of subscribers. “Due to a lack of response and the need to enforce a court order, it becomes necessary to resort to alternative measures,” Justice Moraes wrote in his ruling, adding that the company showed “deep contempt for the Brazilian Justice system.”

fake news Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr

A recent report suggests that Brazilians may be vulnerable to misinformation — as most believe they are able to easily spot fake news. “Those with the highest confidence in their powers of discernment (believing, for example, that they already know which sources are ‘fake news’ or that misinformation techniques don’t work on them) were actually at the highest risk,” writes the report.

Both Brazil’s General Data Protection Law and the country’s internet legal framework allow for services to be banned under extreme circumstances.

According to the Federal Police, Telegram is not only used to spread misinformation but also to commit crimes such as drug and arms dealing, as well as the circulation of child sexual abuse images.

By the time of publication, Telegram was still available for Brazilian users.

Marcela Matiuzzo, a data privacy law expert and partner at VMCA, a São Paulo-based law firm, explains that Justice Moraes’s decision follows the same argument multiple courts have used in the past to block WhatsApp Messenger. 

However, she adds that Brazil’s 2014 internet legal framework limits courts’ powers to suspend online services. They can’t simply do ban an app because a company has challenged a legal decision — but only when user data is compromised or poorly dealt with.

“This decision is the result of the actions of a handful of people, but punishes millions who use Telegram,” Ms. Matiuzzo argues. In his decision, Justice Moraes mentions that 53 percent of Brazilian smartphones have Telegram installed.