Brazil arrests Facebook executive in row over police access to data

Rosa Sulleiro
Entrance to the Provisional Detention Centre in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the vice president of Facebook for Latin America, Diego Dzodan, was being detained, in a photo taken on March 1, 2016 (AFP Photo/Nelson Almeida)

Sao Paulo (AFP) - Brazilian police arrested the vice president of Facebook for Latin America on Tuesday after the social media giant refused access to data the authorities said was important in a drug probe.

Diego Dzodan was detained following "repeated non-compliance with court orders" to share Facebook data requested in a drug trafficking case, federal police said.

Brazilian authorities were also seeking access to the network's popular mobile phone chat tool, WhatsApp.

"This information was required to produce evidence to be used in an organized crime and drug trafficking investigation," the police statement said.

The probe, police said, is being held in court, but in secret, with no public allowed.

The standoff dates back four months, with an order issued by a judge in Lagarto, in Sergipe state, where the police investigation against an alleged drug trafficking gang is taking place. According to Brazilian media reports, traffickers had been using WhatsApp to discuss their business.

When Facebook refused to comply, Brazilian authorities imposed fines, starting with 50,000 reais (about $12,500) daily beginning two months ago, and which rose to 1 million reais ($250,000) a month ago, Sergipe federal police told AFP.

Dzodan, an Argentine national, was arrested at his home in Sao Paulo and was being held pending questioning.

- 'Extreme, disproportionate' -

US billionaire Mark Zuckerberg's companies slammed Brazil's approach.

"We are disappointed with the extreme and disproportionate measure of having a Facebook executive escorted to a police station in connection with a case involving WhatsApp, which operates separately from Facebook," Facebook said in a statement.

"Facebook has always been and will be available to address any questions Brazilian authorities may have."

WhatsApp insisted that it had no technical means for cooperating.

"We are disappointed that law enforcement took this extreme step. WhatsApp cannot provide information we do not have," it said in a statement.

"We cooperated to the full extent of our ability in this case and while we respect the important job of law enforcement, we strongly disagree with its decision."

It's not the first arm-wrestle between Brazilian justice authorities and Facebook.

In December, a judge ordered the suspension of WhatsApp for 12 hours after it failed to hand over information during another criminal investigation. The stoppage, which provoked widespread anger, was overturned on appeal.

Three years ago Google was in the firing line. The search engine giant's top Brazil executive was accused of breaking election laws when he refused to remove videos on YouTube that were critical of a mayoral candidate in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

In the United States, Apple is embroiled in its own row with the government over a refusal to cooperate with the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a mass killing by a couple in San Bernardino, California, last year.