Playing Cat and Mouse With Venezuela’s Internet Censors

In an effort to keep the military connected and protesters offline, Maduro embraces nimble internet censorship.

Anti-government protesters clash with security forces in Caracas during the commemoration of May Day on May 1.
Anti-government protesters clash with security forces in Caracas during the commemoration of May Day on May 1. (CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s attempt to orchestrate a military uprising against President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday began with a classic coup-maker’s public address: a pre-dawn speech with soldiers in the background. Guiadó, who has the backing of the United States, broadcast the speech over Twitter, bypassing the country’s government-controlled media.

But just 25 minutes later, authorities in Caracas began throttling access to the platform, the start of an intense effort by the government to suppress the opposition’s ability to organize online.

As protests continued through the week and opposition leaders made repeated appeals for demonstrators to fill the streets, authorities in Caracas engaged in a remarkably nimble effort to censor the country’s internet selectively.

They intermittently blocked key platforms from being used by opposition leaders to broadcast their message and then, just as easily, lifted those restrictions to broadcast government messages, according to Venezuelan activists and internet researchers.

Internet censorship, of course, is nothing new in autocratic countries, including Venezuela. But in recent months Caracas’s censorship regime has grown more precise in its efforts to restrict content critical of the government and platforms that could help in deposing Maduro.

“They are using more sophisticated techniques in ways that are harder to avoid but don’t take the whole internet down,” said Andrés Azpúrua, a Venezuelan internet freedom activist who runs the monitoring site VeSinFiltro.

That has allowed the government to avoid the collateral damage often associated with internet crackdowns. “Even the government supporters use the internet for many things,” Azpúrua added.

On Thursday, for example, the opposition figure Leopoldo López emerged from the Spanish Embassy in Caracas, where he has taken shelter from authorities, to hold a press conference. But before he began speaking, government censors started limiting access to a variety of streaming and social media sites, according to data provided to Foreign Policy by NetBlocks, a research organization that tracks internet outages.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, Guaidó delivered an address via YouTube to encourage his supporters to remain in the streets, despite his failed attempt to inspire a military uprising. As Guaidó spoke, access to messaging sites and streaming platforms dropped off in Venezuela. When Maduro spoke later that evening, access was restored, NetBlocks data showed.

“It’s nimble, and this has made it harder to identify the phenomenon and classify it,” Alp Toker, the executive director of NetBlocks, said.

The approach contrasts with the more heavy-handed way other countries have dealt with the internet. In the run-up to last month’s referendum in Egypt on whether to grant President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the right to remain in power until 2030, the government attempted to block a site hosting an anti-Sisi petition that had gathered more than 250,000 signatures. Using more rudimentary techniques than those in Venezuela, Egyptian authorities ended up blocking some 34,000 sites in the country.

Still, the Venezuelan approach is not infallible. As the government has limited access to streaming platforms, NetBlocks observed other sites that had been blocked long-term come back online, probably because of a lack of bandwidth in the country’s censorship technology.

“This indicates that the filtering devices have limits and that capacity is transferred over to the sites that the authorities want to block,” Toker said.

Journalists and activists in Venezuela have been increasingly resorting to online platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp in response to the government’s widespread online banning of independent media outlets, newspapers, and TV stations. These blanket restrictions on outlets have made it difficult for independent journalists to spread their work and anti-government groups to reach Venezuelans.

The government in Caracas is also going after the opposition in other ways. In February, hackers apparently working on behalf of the Maduro regime redirected Venezuelan internet users attempting to visit a website set up by the Guaidó camp to collect information from volunteers to a copycat version controlled by the government.

The government collected the personal details submitted by users pushed onto the copycat site and published their information online—in an apparent attempt to intimidate Guaidó supporters.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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