Documenting Internet blocking in Venezuela

by Digital Rights LAC on October 29, 2023

Sem título

Marianne Díaz Hernández. Venezuelan attorney and storyteller, activist of @accesolibre and legal leader of Creative Commons in Venezuela.
Twitter: @mariannedh

Although Venezuela does not appear in global Internet censorship reports, the country has a history of questionable practices regarding content filtering and user persecution for their online activities. Despite what you may think, the history of Internet filtering practices in Venezuela are not anything recent: it dates from at least 2007, when the first blocking of web pages were held by CANTV, the leading telecommunication company in the country, which was re-nationalized that year by President Hugo Chavez, who had just begun his third term.

 

From that year on, a series of practices (social media user detentions, blocking web pages by CANTV, controversial statements about social media influence in national politic and stability) began to be commonly used. Two people (with very few followers and almost no influence) were arrested in 2010 for writing on Twitter about the banking system, after a wave of interventions to financial entities on charges of “destabilizing the banking system” in the country. After the 2011 parliamentary elections (when the Minister of Telecommunications shut down the Internet throughout the country for about thirty minutes, claiming that the action was taken “to avoid the hacking of the National Electoral Council website”), a citizen was arrested for allegedly posting a photo on Facebook of electoral material burnt (corresponding to a previous election), despite it was clear that the user had not been the source of the circulation of the photo –already massively shared in social media–. Websites like Noticiero Digital and La Patilla were temporarily blocked several times by posting certain content, such as reporting on fighting in La Planta prison. In 2013, after President Chavez’s death, all .co domains (related to link shorteners such Twitter) were blocked for two days, in an attempt to prevent the online propagation of an alleged recording of Chavez.

However, the current president’s administration, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor, has brought his own policy on digital media, in all appearance a previous and redoubled version. Since November 2013, when Maduro announced on live national television his decision to block any website containing information on the price of the parallel dollar (leading to block of between 500 and 900 web pages by CONATEL), his policy regarding this issue was clear. While blocking websites on the so-called “black dollar” goes back many years (with exchange controls going back from 2003), Chavez had simply limited himself to ban two or three emblematic websites, but he never carried out such a massive content filtering campaign.

In 2014, it was the turn of the protests. Since mid-February, when protests kicked off in the state of Táchira, and in March and April, when protests had their high points in major cities, the web was used to document, organize and report on them. In this way, the Internet had become one of the objectives to be controlled by the government through subtle practices, such as suspected bandwidth throttling (in which Internet connections were terribly slow during evening hours, when the repression of protests was increased and people resorted to the web for information due to the absent of media coverage in over-the-air television channel), and much more drastic measures. For instance, in Táchira, where protests were more intense, Internet was completely shut down for two days without any plausible explanation by authorities. The government also announced deliberately interfering communications of Zello application, claiming that it was being used to plan protests, and immediately after, it was blocked. VPN applications as TunnelBear or anonymization apps as Anonymouse were also inaccessible.

Between February 14 and April 8, 2014, the NGO Acceso Libre collected, through Herdict and with the support from users around the country, website blocking reports showing around 25 blocked web pages. From 2.155 individual reports collected, it was noted, among other things, that while sites such as those informing on the parallel dollar remained blocked at all operators, other websites were evidently inaccessible only through CANTV (e.g. Pastebin, PasteHTML and others). Something similar occurred with tools of VPN and anonymization such TunnelBear and Anonymouse that showed to be almost completely blocked in CANTV, as opposed to other operators.

While the government claims that these blocking are based on the Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Digital Media Act (RESORTE-ME, in Spanish), the fact is that it contradicts international standards on human rights by granting content filtering powers to an administrative body under the Executive (CONATEL). According to RESORTE-ME law, legislation passed in 2011, ISPs are obliged to block all content that fits a series of vague situations such as “no recognition of the authorities” or “promoting breakdown.” Moreover, the norm does not comply with the principle of proportionality. It is worth mentioning that the OAS Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression on the Internet states that filtering entire web pages is an extreme measure, which is justified only in serious cases, and that content filtering not controlled by end user is a form of prior censorship (a practice prohibited by the Venezuelan Constitution). In the same manner, the Joint Declaration establishes that “[c]utting off access to the Internet, or parts of the Internet, for whole populations or segments of the public (shutting down the Internet) can never be justified, including on public order or national security grounds.” This also applies to measures such as throttling, which, as practices undertaken by the Executive during the 2011 elections, constitute a frontal violation of freedom of expression on the Internet.

Culminating 2014, protests have been almost totally exhausted, despite the circumstances that gave rise to them remain the same and no agreement was reached with the government. However, everything seems to indicate that Venezuelan online communication policies continue imperturbable: last week, for instance, two people were arrested for posting in Twitter some messages related with the murder of the Socialist Party deputy, Robert Serra, and the news portal Infobae was blocked, in this occasion in a publicly and openly manner as stated by the President CONATEL.

The absolute lack of transparency regarding these procedures, and the tone in which the authorities express themselves in regard to digital media and social media (accusing them of contributing to the “psychological warfare”), coupled with measures such as the creation of the Strategic Center for Security and Homeland Protection (CESPPA, in Spanish), a security agency whose mission is to “neutralize destabilization plans against the nation.” Among other powers, the Center can declare any information as classified, including Internet content. This demonstrates a clear desire to continue limiting the free flow of information on the Web.

*Translated by Amelia Toledo