Friday, February 21, 2014

Internet a crucial Venezuela battleground

Posted on Friday, 02.21.14

Internet a crucial Venezuela battleground

LIMA, Peru -- The battle for Venezuela is being fought as vigorously
online as in the streets, with authorities cutting off the Internet to a
clash-torn university city and blocking selected websites and a
"walkie-talkie" service widely used by protesters.

A local TV reporter in San Cristobal, capital of the western border
state of Tachira, said Thursday night that she could hear gunshots as
tear-gas-firing police broke up protests just as they had the night
before when Internet service was cut.

"We're still without Internet. And some people don't have water or
electricity either," said the reporter, Beatriz Font.

San Cristobal, home to one private and three public universities, is
where the current wave of anti-government demonstrations began on Feb.
2, the fiercest unrest since President Hugo Chavez died last March.

Later Thursday, the U.S. company Zello told The Associated Press that
Venezuela's state-run telecoms company, CANTV, had just blocked access
to the push-to-talk "walkie-talkie" app for smart phones and computers
that has been a hugely popular organizing tool for protesters from Egypt
to Ukraine.

Zello supports up to 600 users on a single channel, and company CEO Bill
Moore said it became the No. 1 app in Ukraine on Thursday for both the
iOS and Android operating systems. In one day this week, Zello reported
more than 150,000 downloads in Venezuela.

Some believe Venezuela's information war, which escalated last week as
the government blocked images on Twitter after violence in Caracas
claimed three lives, is only just beginning. The protesters are fed up
with a catalog of woes that include rampant inflation, food shortages
and one of the world's highest murder rates.

The socialist government cemented its near-monopoly on broadcast media
Chavez's 14-year-rule, and social media have been crucial for young
opposition activists as they organize and exchange information on
deaths, injuries and arrests.

Net-savvy activists reported a serious nationwide degradation Thursday
in Internet service provided by CANTV, which handles about 90 percent of
the country's traffic.

They said websites including, run by the eponymous
Colombia-based regional news network, and, bulletin boards
that cyberactivists use to anonymously share information, were being

President Nicolas Maduro had ordered NTN24 removed from air last week
after it broadcast video of a student killed by a gunshot to the head in

U.S.-based company Renesys, a top analyzer of global Internet traffic,
confirmed the website blocking and service degradation, but said it
could not determine if CANTV was decreasing bandwidth.

"I certainly don't know from our data if it is deliberate, although
given the context, it seems plausible," said Renesys researcher Doug Madory.

Venezuela's traffic to its close ally Cuba over the ALBA-1 undersea
cable, meanwhile, appeared unaffected, he said.

Programmer and cyberactivist Jose Luis Rivas, who is from San Cristobal
but did give his location fearing persecution, said the Internet went
out in most of the city of 600,000 about midnight Wednesday.

All across Venezuela since protests accelerated last week, activists
have posted online YouTube videos of riot police and national guard
breaking them up. Sometimes, the security forces are accompanied by
pistol-packing motorcycle gangs of Chavista loyalists that the
opposition also blames for killings and other abuses.

Rivas said that on Wednesday night, before the Internet went out in San
Cristobal, people were live-streaming video of a crackdown by security

Cutting the Internet deprived people of their only access to uncensored
information and Rivas said people told him "they felt fear because they
were no longer informed."

Government officials have not commented on the Internet outage and did
not respond to Associated Press queries on either it or the service
degradation and website blocking.

Spokespeople for Conatel, the government telecommunications regulator,
and the Ministry of Information, said they were not authorized to
discuss the matter.

Conatel's director, William Castillo, tweeted Thursday that social
networks were being "invaded by cybercriminals who are attacking
accounts and manipulating information."

Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez used Twitter complain that they
were being used to incite "coup-directed violence and create anguish."

Hacktivists have been attacking government websites from abroad,
rendering many unreachable with denial-of-service attacks, or
data-packet floods.

Images, meanwhile, have been available on Twitter since last week's
brief outage. Company spokesman Nu Wexler said Thursday that measures
which he did not specify were taken to "ensure continuity of service."
Twitter also continued to tweet a workaround that lets users in
Venezuela to receive tweets on their cellphones via text message.

Venezuela has been blocking websites that track the black market rate
for the country's currency for months, and for a number of weeks that
knocked out access to the popular Web address-shortening application Bitly.

Venezuelans who want to reach such sites have had to use proxy services,
which have long been employed by people in China and Iran to circumvent
government censorship.

The international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Danny
O'Brien, said he thought the Venezuelan net censorship has been
"somewhat haphazard and arbitrary."

Nearly half Venezuela's population relies on government-controlled media
as its sole information source, the rest on the Internet.

But cutting off Internet is not smart political strategy, said O'Brien.

"I think the important lesson people should learn from these Internet
blackouts is that they just throw fuel on the flames of civil unrest,"
he said.

Frank Bajak on Twitter:

No comments:

Post a Comment