For the last month, Venezuela has been caught up in widespread protests against its government. The Maduro administration has responded by cracking down on what it claims as being foreign interference online. As that social unrest has escalated, the state's censorship has widened: from the removal of television stations from cable networks, to the targeted blocking of social networking services, and the announcement of new government powers to censor and monitor online. Last night, EFF received reports from Venezuelans of the shutdown of the state Internet provider in San Cristóbal, a regional capital in the west of the country.
The censorship began early last week when the authorities removed a Columbian news network, NTN24, from Venezuelan cable, and simultaneously published a reminder that TV stations could be in violation of a law that forbids the incitement or promotion of "hatred", or "foment citizens' anxiety or alter public order."
Venezuelan Internet users on a variety of ISPs lost connectivity last Thursday to an IP address owned by the content delivery network, Edgecast. That address provided access to, among other services, Twitter's images at pbs.twimg.com. A separate block prevented Venezuelans from reaching the text hosting site, Pastebin.
No official explanation for the loss of access to these general purpose communication platforms was given by either the government or the ISPs (the country's largest ISP, CANTV, is government-owned). Twitter later reconfigured their services to point to another IP in response to Venezuelan complaints, bypassing the block. Twitter also communicated to users in Venezuela how to use Twitter using SMS, in anticipation of further Internet interruptions.
William Castillo, the director of CONATEL, the country's media regulator, later claimed that Internet censorship was necessary to fight off online attacks. He said that his organization had blocked several links "where public sites were being attacked."
Last week also saw the Venezuelan government prepare more systematic monitoring and blocking online. The country's official gazette published last Thursday the details of a new government institution, CESPPA ("The Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Country"). Among its broad powers, CESPPA can unilaterally classify and censor any information it sees as a threat to national security. Its structure includes two new Directorates: the Directorate of Information and Technology Studies, which will be in charge of "processing and analyzing information from the web"; and the Directorate for Social Research, intended to "neutralize and defeat destabilization plans against the nation". The Center will also provide for a network of situation rooms to be placed in all public institutions (the state ISP, CANTV, is defined as a public institution).
When first announced in October, CESPPA was criticized for being an unconstitutional attack on press freedom. With its new details revealed, it's clear that it will also have a wide mandate to monitor and control all online communications in the defence of the state.
Even before CESPPA can flex its new powers, however, the Venezuelan government appears to have taken the most drastic step yet against its citizens' free expression online. Starting late Tuesday night, reports reached EFF of the shutdown of CANTV's Internet access in areas of San Cristóbal, the capital of the state of Táchira, and one center of the protests. Venezuelan technologists have been organizing online to spread information about bypassing censorship and restoring connectivity via the Twitter account @accesolibreve.
The Venezuelan authorities may claim their interference in Internet communication is an attempt to "defeat destabilization," but the results have so far led in the opposite direction. With shifting excuses for increasingly heavy-handed Internet controls, the government is undermining its own legitimacy abroad and among its own citizens. The censorship and blackouts must end.