The Venezuelan Crisis Also Lives Online

Juan Guaido sits on the back of a motorbike behind a driver. He's waving at a crowd of people.
Venezuela’s National Assembly head and the country’s self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido leaves after a gathering with opposition supporters.
LUIS ROBAYO/Getty Images

On Wednesday, as National Assembly President Juan Guaidó declared himself the legitimate president of the country, Nicolás Maduro’s government quickly resorted to blocking popular web services and internet apps, including Instagram, which Venezuelans use to share unedited news through live video feeds. Services including Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Search, and more suffered disruptions this week, while at least 20 people were killed on the streets by state security and pro-government forces.

It’s something we’re seeing play out all over the world. The government of Venezuela joins those of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Zimbabwe, and parts of India in disconnecting people from the internet and social networks in the past few weeks.
What was once a tactic of last resort to control the population has now gained traction and become a widespread practice, despite strong condemnation by governments, courts, and the U.N. Shutdowns have become many governments’ knee-jerk response to elections, protests, and even national school exams.

Maduro’s government has long sought complete, China-style control over the flow of information and to isolate users from the global internet. In 2014, not long after his inauguration, Maduro shut down access to parts of Twitter and Zello, a walkie-talkie-type communications app, during protests. In July 2017, Access Now, where we work, reported throttling and connectivity disruptions in Venezuela days before the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Interruptions to service don’t only come from intentional acts—the economic crisis has also degraded Venezuela’s largest telecom, CANTV, a publicly owned provider whose network infrastructure is in dire condition due the lack of maintenance.

Total internet shutdowns are easy for us to spot, but the problems with Venezuela’s web go much deeper. The government has also passed laws to strengthen its control of information offline and online. Since 2010, an amendment to the law on media responsibility (Ley Resorte) has forced broadcasters to air certain government-approved content while prohibiting pornography, violent content, and advertising. The law euphemistically extends “social responsibility” to internet service providers, threatening the ability of internet users to share content and information freely. What’s worse, in May 2017, the government issued Executive Order 2489, extending the “state of emergency” and giving itself powers to police the internet and filter online content. Soon after the EO took hold, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Periscope were blocked by CANTV. Meanwhile, from 2014 through 2018, authorities blocked El Nacional, La Patilla, Pornhub, YouPorn, and the Tor anonymous browsing network. Later in 2017, the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly, an institution recently set up by Maduro whose legitimacy is questioned by international entities, approved the Anti-hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence. According to this law, anyone promoting hate or violence publicly (including on social media) could be sent to prison for up to 20 years. This vague and overbroad law has justified many enforcement actions by the government to censor and arrest opponents and journalists.

Just last week, right before the ongoing constitutional crisis exploded, information was leaked that a new bill was ready to be presented to the National Constituent Assembly. The pompously titled Constitutional Law of Cyberspace of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a blatant Chinese-style attempt to declare sovereignty over the “Venezuelan cyberspace.” In effect, the bill pushes for a military takeover of online spaces and criminalizes the digital commons. The bill states that the use of the internet in any form is a matter of public and strategic interest that affects the “integral defense” of the nation. It also creates an all-powerful authority made up of staffers directly hand-picked by Maduro. In response, more than 70 local and international organizations, including Access Now, analyzed the leaked bill and co-authored a letter in response, expressing their concern and frontally opposing the bill.

Digital rights groups in the #KeepItOn Coalition fighting internet shutdowns have now trained their measurement tools on Venezuela to detect shutdowns and sound the alert to blocking of sites, apps, and services there. A host of sensors, probes, and other apps deliver real-time data on the state of Venezuelan internet, mapping censorship as it happens. The #KeepItOn Coalition also analyzes the blocking to recommend the best circumvention tools and tricks to users on the ground, and calculates the economic costs of the disruptions. Lawsuits, United Nations advocacy, and diplomatic pressure all count among our push-back weapons. Still, the number of shutdowns globally is rising, from around 110 in 2017 to more than 200 in 2018, according to research by the more than 175 organizations in the #KeepItOn Coalition.

Like other rights-infringing heads of state, Maduro deployed this brutal tactic at a politically fraught moment: just as supporters of his political opponent, Guaidó, live-streamed the National Assembly leader’s self-inauguration on Instagram. We fear the death toll on Venezuelan streets will rise amid continued demonstrations. To track this violence, as well as ordinary peoples’ struggles through the hunger, inflation, and chaos, information must get out. That’s exactly why Maduro’s government is trying to shut it down.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.