Social media shutdown in Venezuela is a warning of what is to come as political tensions rise


UPDATE (Jan 23, 2019): Reports from network monitors and individuals on the ground indicate widespread blocking of YouTube, Google services, and several social media platforms. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are widely inaccessible, and disruptions on Twitter, particularly for images and video, are becoming more pronounced. 

January 22, 2019 (Venezuela) — Yesterday, #KeepItOn coalition member NetBlocks detected blocks to Twitter and Instagram, as well as partial disruptions to YouTube traffic, on Venezuela’s state internet service provider CANTV. These disruptions came alongside clashes between the National Guard and 27 of its members challenging the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuelan opposition leaders are calling for widespread protests on Wednesday as political tensions rise. The Maduro government has a long history of using internet shutdowns and other forms of censorship to suppress opposition voices and limit the flow information within the country, particularly at moments of heightened tension.

January 10 marked the start of Maduro’s second six-year term as president, which is widely regarded as illegitimate by international observers, governments, and political opposition in the country. By January 12, Wikipedia was banned on CANTV following a flood of entries debating whether Maduro or the opposition’s National Assembly President Juan Guiadó is the country’s legitimate political leader. The Maduro government has previously blocked access to the Tor network.

“The Maduro government has relied on the dissemination of misinformation alongside tight control of communication flows to maintain its grip on power,” said Verónica Arroyo, Latin America Policy Associate at Access Now. “This attack on Venezuelans’ freedom of expression is emblematic of the attack on democracy itself.”

Venezuela’s Supreme Court recently ruled all acts of the National Assembly are null and void. Maduro established a new legislative body, the Constituent National Assembly, in 2017, giving it full power to overrule the opposition-held National Assembly and draft a new constitution.

The Maduro government is preparing to present a cybersecurity bill to the Constituent Assembly that would declare any online activity a matter of national security and establish an all-powerful authority to monitor and control the internet in Venezuela. It would create extensive new legal pathways to censor and surveil, exacerbating what are already dire conditions for human rights. More than 60 civil society organizations, activists, journalists, technologists, and others from around the world have signed an open letter in opposition to the bill.

“In a country where the people are suffering from shortages of food and medicine, hyperinflation, unreliable sources of electricity and water, rampant violence both by law enforcement officers themselves and criminals driven by poverty and lawlessness, internet shutdowns put people’s lives at even further risk,” said Berhan Taye, #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now.

It is already exceedingly difficult to access medical care, or to safely communicate with loved ones both in Venezuela and in the ballooning refugee population outside the country (estimates are currently at 3 million). Shutdowns can make meeting these basic needs nearly impossible, and they work to silence those who are speaking out about the myriad of human rights abuses happening under the Maduro regime.

Reports from local activists indicate the most effective VPNs for circumventing blocking in Venezuela are currently Psiphon, Lantern, and TunnelBear. Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline has also put together a guide for Venezuelans on circumvention and secure communications. Those who are personally experiencing internet shutdowns in Venezuela can share their stories here to help document the impact of shutdowns on people’s everyday lives.