Analysis & Comment

Brazilian Judge Bans Telegram App Amid School Attacks Inquiry

BRASILIA — A judge in Brazil on Wednesday ordered that the messaging app Telegram be blocked throughout the country, as the authorities investigate neo-Nazi groups that they say have used the platform to incite school attacks.

The Federal Police requested that the app be suspended because Telegram failed to comply with court orders demanding complete user data from two antisemitic group chats. The company told the police that the groups had been deleted and that it could not recover the data.

Judge Wellington Lopes da Silva ordered the app shut down and imposed a fine of $200,000 per day against it for noncompliance with previous court decisions. He also ordered Google and Apple to remove the app from their stores in Brazil and mobile carriers to block access to it in the country.

The court order against Telegram follows a series of aggressive moves by the Brazilian authorities to hold social media and messaging companies accountable for what users post on their platforms.

Last year, a Supreme Court justice, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered a ban on Telegram because it had not fully responded to previous orders to remove the accounts of a prominent supporter of former President Jair Bolsonaro. In 2015 and 2016, local judges in Brazil suspended WhatsApp four times under similar circumstances, but those decisions were quickly overturned.

Judge Silva said on Wednesday that Telegram had no justification for disobeying the user data subpoena.

“This company only partially complied with the court order addressed to it since it limited itself to providing information concerning the administrator (and not all users) of the ‘Brazilian Anti-Semitic Movement’ channel, failing, moreover, to provide data of users of the ‘Anti-Semitic Front’ group,” the judge wrote.

The court will deliver subpoenas to the companies on Wednesday evening, and Judge Silva said they should take the app down as soon as they formally receive the orders.

A lawyer for Telegram in Brazil did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but Telegram can appeal the order to a higher court.

The Brazilian justice minister, Flavio Dino, is leading a federal initiative to fight a rise of violent episodes and threats of violence against schools in Brazil. In recent weeks, the Federal Police have arrested 302 people suspected of threatening or planning school massacres, and another 1,738 cases are under investigation.

“The so-called antisemitic movement is acting in these networks,” Mr. Dino said at a news conference on Wednesday. “And we know that this is at the base of violence against our children, our teens.”

The authorities say the group chats were found on the phone of a teenager accused of committing two school shootings in November that left three people dead and another 13 injured. The police said they had identified Nazi content, violent videos, murder tutorials and bomb-manufacturing instructions shared in the groups that inspired the attacks.

Leopoldo Lacerda, a federal marshal who requested the app’s suspension, said Telegram “does not cooperate with authorities, which makes the platform a means for heinous crimes.” He said the company had not cooperated with investigators on several cases related to child abuse and school threats.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Dino, the justice minister, signed a federal ordinance allowing the government to remove online content it considers to be promoting violence. He also ordered an investigation to determine whether social media companies had violated their obligations to moderate violent content that might endanger students.

The Brazilian Congress is also debating a “fake news bill” that could hold social media platforms and messaging apps accountable for a variety of user-generated content, includings post that threaten Brazil’s democratic institutions or promotes discrimination.

Lawmakers are still drafting the legislation, which House Speaker Arthur Lira said he would bring to a floor vote next week, with the support of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s leftist coalition. Right-wing and center-right lawmakers, however, have objected to the bill, saying it would undermine freedom of speech.

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