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Venezuela Blacks Out Internet, Censors Apps as Ongoing Clashes Hit Cyberspace

First Posted: Feb 21, 2014 07:20 PM EST
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With battles on the Venezuelan streets between protestors and security forces ongoing, new reports indicate the Venezuelan government is expanding its actions in the online clash on social media and the internet.

While Venezuela's censorship of images on Twitter was widely reported last week, a new report from the Associated Press states that authorities have been cutting off mobile internet service to certain parts of the country this week as well.

Internet Censorship

Internet connectivity for the city of San Cristobal, the capital of the western border state of Tachira, where many protests have been ongoing, was only gradually restored on Friday morning, after a blackout that lasted a reported 30 hours, which also affected smartphone connectivity.

"We've had to find out what's happening in our city from others," said flour wholesaler Jeffrey Guerrero to the AP, showing that his iPhone was unable to connect to Twitter. The outage not only affected social media apps like Twitter, but also push-to-talk "walkie-talkie" apps for smartphones and computers that have been used for protest organizing in Venezuela and elsewhere.

U.S. push-to-talk app company Zello said that Venezuela's telecom company CANTV -- which is part of the state-run media empire built by late president Hugo Chavez through nationalization of private companies -- blocked access to its app this week. CANTV handles about 90 percent of Venezuela's internet traffic. Zello, which was also the top app in the Ukraine this week, as that country has experienced its own wave of demonstrations and crackdowns, has reportedly seen more than 150,000 downloads in Venezuela in a single day during the protests this week.

Other sources, like global internet traffic analysis company Renesys, reported website blocking and internet service deterioration across the country this week, though it couldn't confirm if this was a direct result of CANTV throttling bandwidth.

Information Wars

Meanwhile, according to social media news tracker Mashable, it seems Venezuela's government is using social media savvy to launch a counter campaign online, allegedly using paid government online commentators to "spread official propaganda, harass critics on Twitter, and attempt to steer the online conversation."

For example, Delcy Rodrizuez, Venezeuela's top minister of Communications and Information, tweeted that social networks were being used by "violent coup leaders" and creating "anguish within the population in a large scale psychological operation." The Venezuelan government declined to comment on that report, however.

Workarounds 

Savvy Venezuelans have been working around internet blocks and outages, promoting Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and Tor -- an anonymous internet routing service originally fostered by the U.S. State Department with the intention of helping protect free speech across the globe -- to get around Venezuelan government censorship. Twitter has also been tweeting workarounds for Venezuelans to use SMS messaging to receive tweets on their cellphones without the internet.

According to recent Pew reports, Venezuelans are a highly connected citizenry compared to other countries in Latin America, with 83 percent of Venezuelans with internet access using social media and 83 percent owning a cell phone, and nearly a third of Venezuelans reporting having a smartphone.

Beyond Social Media

It's not just new media that is experiencing pushback from the Venezuelan government. According to CNN on Friday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Madura said in a televised speech Thursday, "Enough war propaganda. I do not accept war propaganda against Venezuela. If they do not rectify things, get out of Venezuela, CNN. Get out."

Hours later, government officials told seven CNN International and CNN en Español journalists that their press credentials were revoked, and asked to leave the country.

For more on the Venezuelan protests, popular organizing apps, and other Latino news, follow us @Latin_Post.

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