The Internet: Venezuela’s Lifeline
December 4, 2019
In Venezuela, the internet is a lifeline for citizens. Yet, internet freedom is threatened as the Maduro regime takes action to censor websites and news sources that contradict the views of the government. Some of these efforts include banning independent media outlets, limiting access to networks broadcasting opposition leaders’ speeches, and collecting citizens’ information from the internet to use it against them. Given this context, and to circumvent censorship, Venezuelans have turned to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to access information, communicate with each other, and organize the opposition. This piece covers the four main pillars of censorship, internet circumvention, highlights important uses for internet beyond access to news, and provides insights into the role the international community can play to support trustworthy, high-quality information.
The Four Pillars of Censorship
There are four main pillars of censorship in Venezuela, and each plays a mutually reinforcing role in blocking Venezuelan citizens from accessing, viewing, and publishing information online.
Pillar One: Producers of Information
The Maduro regime, continuing a legacy begun by his predecessor Hugo Chavez, has employed tactics to silence critics and restrict the space of media and civil society. The regime has systematically closed traditional media outlets such as newspapers, radio, and television outlets to gain control over what content is accessible to Venezuelan citizens. Closing traditional media outlets has created a new digital level where information can be found and distributed; however, the new digital plane is also easier to manipulate, enabling the Maduro regime to access and track users’ information. This shift makes it much easier for the regime to control what is being disseminated. For example, in April 2019, multiple media outlets were shut down after opposition leader Juan Guaidó used Twitter to announce an opposition plan to encourage the military to leave Maduro. The internet was restored 20 minutes before a live-streamed speech given by Maduro in which he denounced the opposition. There has also been evidence of the Maduro government blocking the internet during sessions of the National Assembly, which is the only democratically elected institution left in Venezuela and is presided over by Guaidó.
Independent media is often threatened in Venezuela, mainly due to acts of violence, obstruction, and detention that journalists face. The lack of a free press means the Venezuelan people are only consuming the information the regime wants them to see and are uninformed when it comes to what is truly going on in the country, the region, and the world.
Trolling has also become a significant problem in media production. The Maduro regime has seemingly set up duplicate web pages of sites frequented by those who oppose the regime and collects the information of those consumers for future intimidation or bribery of these citizens. Maduro’s administration takes trolling a step further, as Venezuela is currently engaged in active foreign mis-and disinformation campaigns. In fact, evidence suggests that Venezuela is learning these disinformation campaign techniques from Russia, an important ally and a country with a similarly spotty record on internet freedom and accessibility.
Pillar Two: Consumers of Information
The Maduro government has not only attacked producers of media but has also limited consumers’ access to information through various methods. The regime has often shut down TOR (short for The Onion Router) and other tools that allow citizens to browse the internet anonymously, hence preventing citizens from circumventing censorship. For example, the government blocked access to the Google Play store, preventing citizens from downloading apps that may have allowed them to communicate and access information without the government’s knowledge.
Many Venezuelans have been using virtual private networks (VPNs), but they are mostly used to find out currency exchange rates and not as a means to bypass internet blockage. Regardless, VPNs cause slow internet function, which often results in an information overload and use an exorbitant amount of data making it difficult for Venezuelans to depend on VPNs as a reliable method of accessing communication tools and information.
Pillar Three: Infrastructure
The country’s deteriorating infrastructure is another barrier to reliable internet access. About 40 percent of the population in seven of Venezuela’s largest cities reported having internet access, according to the Observatorio Venezolano de Servicios Públicos. As the country’s services rapidly deteriorate due to corruption and lack of investment, people damage the infrastructure itself by stealing cables meant for public services for multiple personal usage. Given the economic situation in Venezuela, antennas and cables are often stolen given their copper content, which can be sold on the black market.
Noteworthy as well, there is a monopoly in the telecommunications field. 70 percent of the cable and internet service is captured by CANTV, the state-run telephone and internet service provider. CANTV is a messenger for the Maduro regime. It is also reportedly being used by the government to spy on its citizens, tracking their emails, phone conversations, and other communication to identify individuals who disagree with the regime.
Pillar Four: The Legal Structure
Venezuela’s legal framework for media is ambiguous and punitive. Further, it fosters fear-based, self-imposed censorship. In March 2019, journalist and human rights activist Luis Carlos Diaz was kidnapped by the regime for over 24 hours for allegedly playing a role in the nationwide blackouts. Since his release, Diaz has been forbidden from speaking out. In addition, among other violations of his civil liberties, he is not allowed to travel outside the country and from engaging in public demonstrations. Like the case of Diaz, the regime has systematically used the legal framework to intimidate activists and prevent criticism of the regime.
In 2013, the government created a new organization called the Centro Estratégico de Seguridad y Protección as a means to collect and monitor information that could affect the stability of the regime. Given this official regulatory body that centralizes citizen data and information, citizens further deterred from speaking publicly monitor communication much more carefully.
China and Russia have clearly demonstrated their interest in prolonging the Maduro regime and actively have taken steps to support the regime by putting in place surveillance mechanisms and practices. China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE, provided Venezuela with the technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an ID card called “carnet de la patria,” or a “fatherland card.” To force Venezuelans to comply, the Maduro regime has made it obligatory to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, and subsidized fuel. As citizens need these provisions to survive, they have no choice but to obtain and use the ID despite the card’s known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China Electronics Export Import Company are also supporting financially and technologically these new surveillance methods in Venezuela.
Russia has been key in expanding Venezuela’s mis- and disinformation campaigns, particularly though trolling schools and Russian news media outlets such as Russia Today. Rafael Correa, the left-wing former president of Ecuador who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, has also used Russia Today to continue his outspoken support of the Maduro regime, including an impassionate rant accusing the United States of promoting a coup in Venezuela.
On Circumventing Censorship
Producers of information are aware of both the regime’s capacity and the high political cost in shutting down the internet completely. Therefore, producers diversify their content, posting on various mediums such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. There is also a public desire for information on internet security and methods of internet circumvention, although this desire is mostly reactive; citizens are primarily concerned with obtaining food and medicine for themselves and their families, and internet security is understandably not a main priority.
Venezuelans have historically been using VPNs in an effort to access the black market for the exchange rate of the dollar and have continued using this technology to circumvent the regimen’s internet surveillance. However, when other methods of communication are shut down, citizens begin to share information via text message. This is a dangerous practice because texts use older technology, and the information shared over the server is more easily accessible by the regime.
Venezuelan smartphone access has been steadily decreasing, with the UN’s International Telecommunications Union reporting that mobile phone subscriptions in Venezuela have fallen over 33 percent in the past five years. A 2018 Pew Research Survey reveals that 68 percent of adult Venezuelans own a smartphone. However, given the deepening of the economic and humanitarian crisis, smartphone access has been declining by more than 7 percent annually. Phones still present in country are typically not modern and cannot handle multiple apps, and as Venezuelans tend to prioritize communication over internet circumvention, they are more likely to download apps for communication such as Twitter or WhatsApp versus apps to bypass censorship.
Mesh networks, or offline communication networks, are increasingly being used as a way for citizens to interact and share information. Mesh networks often require a satellite signal, however, which can allow the regime to use satellite tracking technology to detect a user’s location. Satellite technology is not undetectable and is not above the law, making it dangerous for users of mesh networks because they are breaking the law and can suffer significant consequences when caught. Nevertheless, the Maduro regime has not blocked the import of satellite technology tools and does not seem, to date, to take a strong interest in tracking those who use these services.
Other Instances of Internet Circumvention
Citizens in other countries, like Cuba and Iran, struggled with domestic internet censorship. Yet citizens found ways to circumvent the blockage, and the international community has helped in several instances.
In Cuba, a program called “Programa C4C” or “Cellphones 4 Cuba” was implemented, which gave Cubans cellphones so they could obtain information and communicate. However, people still needed to purchase calling and data plans. People residing in Cuba were given the option of paying for the phone plans of those in the diaspora who might not be able to pay for them. On the flip side, this translated into payments going directly to the Cuban regime, which would then benefit from the inflow of cash. This solution has the potential to play out differently in Venezuela, as Colombia and other countries are currently setting up stations with free wi-fi. This would mean that Venezuelan refugees would not have to pay for a calling plan, and they could be in contact with their families utilizing wi-fi networks rather than using data. Additionally, this means the Maduro regime would likely receive less income from phone charges.
Iran is a more analogous example to the Venezuelan situation than Cuba. In Cuba, society had learned to live without the internet and only recently became a more connected society. In Iran, as in Venezuela, there was a connected society that the government shut down. The sale of VPNs and the usage of proxy servers were popular methods to circumvent censorship in Iran, particularly the usage of U.S. proxy servers. Changing IP addresses has also been a popular method of circumvention. This has changed in the past year due to compliance with U.S. sanctions on companies that have financial transactions with Iran, but these methods remain viable options for Venezuelan citizens.
The Internet beyond Access to News
Aside from the obvious uses of communication and the dissemination of information, the internet has other capabilities that provide unique uses in Venezuela. For example, Twitter and other social media platforms are commonly being used as a way of finding medicine. Doctors can tweet out the specific medicine that they need, and other users can help spread the word and try to provide that medicine.
Additionally, cryptocurrency is a potential innovative solution to both access and distribution of humanitarian aid within Venezuela and the region. Initiatives such as Bitcoin Venezuela, EatBCH, and GiveCripto give Venezuelans an alternative to receive direct, transparent, cost-efficient, and censorship-resistant humanitarian relief through the internet. Even when the internet and electricity are shut down, Venezuelan-led solutions such as Locha Mesh could be an alternative to the internet by providing both a hardware and software that allow users to communicate and transact Bitcoin offline and without a power grid.
Conclusion: Why the Internet Is Venezuela’s Lifeline
As the Maduro regime continues to block websites and limit independent media, Venezuelan citizens have begun looking for other roundabout ways to bypass the government’s censorship. The government has attacked free media by setting up mirror websites in an effort to obtain citizens’ information, has routinely intimidated journalists and activists, and has cut off access to streaming sites when members of the opposition give speeches. Additionally, the government has implemented laws restricting free speech, which has caused many arbitrary detentions of citizens.
VPNs, proxy networks, and mesh networks have all served as potential ways to evade censorship, but these technologies have been increasingly more difficult to come by as the humanitarian crisis worsens. The government takes advantage of the country’s poor infrastructure and blames internet outages on society, knowing it is impossible to prove that the government was behind the blocks.
Keeping the internet functioning in Venezuela is key to alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people. The international community should help support trustworthy, high-quality news and information while providing Venezuelans with tools that strengthen access to the internet.
Moises Rendon is director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative and a fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Arianna Kohan is program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program.
This commentary is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this report are the responsibility of CSIS and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.
The authors would like to thank Margarita Seminario for reviewing early drafts of the commentary.