Netizen Report: Venezuela’s State-Owned ISP Blocking Opposition Sites?

Leopoldo Lopez at a demonstration in Caracas, before he turned himself in to authorities.

Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed El-Gohary, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, Sarah Myers, Bojan Perkov, and Sonia Roubini contributed to this edition.

Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Venezuela, where a wave of peaceful protests over food insecurity and public safety snowballed into a nationwide uprising after the arrests of several student demonstrators last week.

Government officials and supporters are calling protesters “neo-facists” and accusing U.S. government leaders of supporting the uprising. Authorities have arrested at least 100 people, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who will reportedly face terror-related charges. Media attempting to cover the protests have been threatened with fines under a law that “prohibits the dissemination of media containing hate speech and violence.” Colombian cable television network NTN24 was taken off the air on Feb. 12, allegedly due to its coverage of the protests.

On Twitter and the independent crowdsourcing platform Herdict, users have reported that multiple independent and pro-opposition blogs and news sites are inaccessible via CANTV, Venezuela’s state-owned ISP, which has a near monopoly over the national telecom market. Activists and media workers using social media to report on protests are also facing big hurdles. On Feb. 12 and 13, Twitter users were unable to send or receive photos in the country, allegedly due to state efforts to block Twitter’s multimedia servers. In recent days, many have reported that police and National Guard officers are seizing protesters’ mobile phones, reviewing personal information, and erasing protest images. Global Voices authors in Venezuela are running a bilingual special coverage section of the protests here.

Free Expression: Bing’s China-based censorship goes global.
Chinese censorship watchdog reported that Microsoft’s search engine Bing seemed to be filtering simplified Chinese language search results not only in mainland China but also in its international version. Furthermore, the site inconsistently displays censorship notices, making it difficult to determine whether the removal of results was at the request of the government. Rebecca MacKinnon suspects this is likely the result of Microsoft “applying apolitical mathematical algorithms to politically manipulated and censored web content.” Engadget reports that Bing Senior Director Stefan Weitz “emphatically confirm[ed]” that Microsoft does not engage in political censorship and promised that Bing is “fixing the issue.”

At a 40-minute meeting organized by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chinese bloggers begged Secretary of State John Kerry to help “tear down this great firewall that blocks the Internet.” They asked him to investigate U.S. companies’ role in recently diminished Internet freedom in China. Kerry responded that human rights are always an element of dialogue with China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized Kerry’s statements as “naive” and pointed out that the conversation could have been “more open,” for example, by discussing Snowden.

The Philippine Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of online libel, part of the controversial “Cyber Martial Law” that has sparked controversy since it was first introduced in 2012. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the court ruling as “a half-inch forward but a century backward” in terms of advancing media freedom in the country.

Surveillance: Ethiopian journalists targeted by Italian spyware.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab has uncovered the use of commercial spyware to surveil Ethiopian journalists working in the United States. Produced by the Milan-based company Hacking Team, the spyware is capable of stealing documents and contact lists, reading emails, and remotely enabling cameras and microphones. In this case, it was used to target journalists working at Ethiopian Satellite Television Service, a U.S.-based news outlet that is frequently critical of the Ethiopian government.

Citizen Lab researchers say they have found evidence of the spyware being used in 21 countries, including Egypt, Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Thailand and Turkey. While the company’s customer policy states that it sells only to governments, Hacking Team will not confirm whether Ethiopia is a customer.

After Chinese police launched a massive crackdown on prostitution in the southern city of Dongguan, responding to an undercover China Central Television report, Sina Weibo released a heat map reportedly showing the flow of people fleeing the raids. Produced from geolocation data from smartphones collected by Baidu, the map indicates the broad capacity of surveillance systems in China to track massive movements of people within the country.

Internet Governance: Two million SIM cards deactivated in Zambia.
The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority deactivated the SIM cards of more than 2 million mobile phone users who failed to register their cards under a new nationwide real-name registration policy. Former Zambian Vice President General Godfrey Miyanda, now an opposition party leader, spoke out against the measure, which he says poses a threat to privacy and freedom of expression.

Netizen Activism: Peaceful demonstration for Darfuri blogger.
Human rights activists staged a peaceful sit-in at the government-run Human Rights Commission in Khartoum, Sudan, calling for the release of Taldejin Arja, a blogger and activist from Darfur who has been in detention without charges since December 2013. Arja was arrested after criticizing government leaders at a press conference.

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