Facebook executive arrested in Brazil over WhatsApp controversy

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A senior official for Facebook Latin America was released by Brazilian authorities Wednesday morning after being detained in São Paulo for failing to comply with a court order requiring Facebook to assist in a criminal investigation.

Diego Dzodan, vice president of Facebook Latin America, was detained by Brazilian authorities on Tuesday and put "at the disposal of justice," according a press release published Tuesday by Brazilian authorities. It’s the latest big battle between governments and tech companies over encryption.

Dzodan was held overnight and released Wednesday morning, according to Facebook.

“Diego’s detention was an extreme, disproportionate measure, and we are pleased to see the court in Sergipe issue an injunction ordering his release,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “Arresting people with no connection to a pending law enforcement investigation is a capricious step and we are concerned about the effects for the people of Brazil and innovation in the country. We remain willing to address questions Brazilian authorities may have.”


The arrest is the latest twist in an ongoing power struggle between the Brazilian government and Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, Brazil's most popular messaging app. The controversy started when Facebook said it couldn’t cooperate with a Brazilian criminal investigation by handing over Whatsapp messages of a suspected drug dealer. Facebook says it can’t access the messages because they are protected by end-to-end encryption, meaning only the sender and recipient can read them. The version of the messages Facebook has access to is encoded gibberish.

In December, a judge ordered the country’s telecom companies to shut down WhatsApp as punishment for refusing to hand over data. The shutdown sparked a massive uproar in a country where 86% of mobile users message each other on WhatsApp, according to a 2015 consumer behavior survey. An appeals court lifted the ban in less than 24 hours.

“I am stunned that our efforts to protects people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time.

The incident seems to echo the recent legal standoff in the United States between Apple and the FBI after the company refused to assist federal authorities in unlocking an encrypted iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters.