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Government4 Feb 201910 mins read

Internet Shutdown in Venezuela Suppresses Political Dissent

Venezuela has joined the ranks of illiberal regimes blocking parts of the internet, with President Maduro aiming to silence his critics by restricting networks during protests and critical speeches. People are turning to VPNs and WhatsApp to access information.

Davey Winder
By Davey WinderCybersecurity Journalist

When Juan Guaido unilaterally declared himself the interim president of Venezuela – a move backed by the US – the response from President Maduro’s government was to toggle the internet’s off switch. In an attempt to disconnect those who oppose his government’s rule, Maduro blocked internet services and apps including Google, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia and YouTube. This move comes straight out of the 21st-century oppressive regime playbook and follows similar internet shutdowns and disruptions in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and Zimbabwe.

However, Maduro’s partial internet shutdown has been less about censoring the general population of Venezuela and all about silencing the voice of his critics. “Internet disruptions in Venezuela through recent weeks have targeted the political opposition with surgical precision,” says Alp Toker, Executive Director at civil society group NetBlocks, which maps internet freedom in real time.

He told Top10VPN that “technical data shows that Venezuela’s networks are restricted during protests and critical speeches, only to return when the incumbent presidency uses Twitter to call supporters to its own rallies.” This contrasts with the shutdowns that NetBlocks tracked in the DRC, Sudan and Zimbabwe during the same period and which, Toker told us, sought rather to silence the general public. “The measures [in Venezuela] appear to be about stacking the deck to shift public opinion while giving the outward impression of business as usual,” he concludes.

History of Venezuelan internet censorship

None of this should come as any great surprise. After all, back in 2014 following his election victory as the successor to Hugo Chavez, Maduro first blocked access to both Twitter and a communications app called Zello in an attempt to silence protest. Then, in 2017, something called Presidential Decree 2489 was issued by the Venezuelan government that gave it powers to prevent “destabilization campaigns and distortion” using “information technology and cyberspace.” Within the space of a month, Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, Twitter and YouTube were all blocked by the state internet service provider CANTV.

In January 2018, Maduro tightened his grip on the internet as CANTV started blocking access to Wikipedia after Juan Guaido was listed as being the 51st president of Venezuela.

In June 2018, CANTV then successfully blocked access to the Tor network that had been used to provide anonymity to internet users. Access Now, which fights for human rights in the digital age, suggested that the “increased use of Tor to access blocked content” was most likely the trigger for this move.

The latest attempts to take control of the internet, by way of a declaration of Venezuelan cyberspace sovereignty, have seen a bill called the Constitutional Law of Cyberspace of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which would see the formation of a new Maduro-sponsored authority to police the online world. A cyberspace coup d’état, in effect.

“This proposed bill to give the Maduro regime total control of the Venezuelan Internet is an abuse of power and a violation of all Venezuelans’ rights,” Dr. Andy Yen, CEO and co-founder of ProtonVPN and ProtonMail told Top10VPN, adding that as a Swiss company, Venezuelan jurisdiction doesn’t apply to ProtonVPN.

President Maduro

Maduro’s internet shutdown has been about silencing the voice of his critics
Photo credit: Hugoshi https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Voices of the people

While illiberal regimes around the world do their best to stifle freedom of speech, those whose rights are being trampled upon continue to find ways for their voices to be heard. A WhatsApp group called Servicio De Informacion Publica has been distributing low-fi audio bulletins from Venezuelan journalists that also gets distributed via Facebook and Twitter for example. Google trialed an app called Intra in Venezuela before releasing it globally at the end of last year. The app connects the smartphone directly to Google’s domain name servers to bypass censorship. And, of course, people are using VPNs in order to circumvent the blocks.

Access Now reports that local activists suggest the most effective VPNs in Venezuela currently are Psiphon, Lantern, and TunnelBear. Dr. Andy Yen advises that to the best of his knowledge the ProtonVPN service is also still functioning. Dr. Yen does, however, warn that “no VPN can prevent an internet shutdown” and concludes “the internet has always been a place for spreading ideas and voicing one’s opinion, and it should remain so.”

Even in scenarios with even more limited connectivity – and Venezuela is fast heading in that direction – all is not necessarily lost for the determined cyber-citizen. “There is going to be CDMA, 3G and 4G connectivity just across the border,” Ian Thornton-Trump, AmTrust International’s EMEA Head of Cyber Security told us, continuing “if you can pick up a signal you are back online.” Thornton-Trump concluded our conversation by insisting that “the truth rides on the shoulders of the internet, and internet access is a hard beast to completely control.” Where there’s a signal, in other words, there’s probably a way to get online.

People using phones

Venezuelans turn to VPNs and WhatsApp to access information

Censorship as damage

John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was quoted by Time magazine in 1993 as saying “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” We asked Kevin Curran, Professor of Cyber Security at Ulster University, whether that statement remains apposite today.

“The Internet is a decentralized global network of networks, but there is one centralized core aspect and that is the Domain Name Service (DNS) root servers,” Prof. Curran notes.

For an attack on this core infrastructure part of the internet to work, attackers would have to attack all the DNS servers located throughout the globe simultaneously, and any attack would have to be maintained until the caches of all the DNS servers and Global Top Level Domains (GTLDs) ‘drained’ which could take days or even weeks.

“To achieve the shutdown of the Internet would therefore require a globally distributed high-bandwidth distributed denial of service attack on a sdcale never seen and in all likelihood simply impossible,” Prof. Curran concludes. “At least for now.”

The techno-moral of this whole distasteful take is that while governments can, will and do make online life difficult for citizens, they cannot, and have not, managed to prevent those determined to hear and be heard. Even states with the most mature of restrictive technologies, such as China, have not been able to totally suppress free speech. And should a rogue nation consider taking down the whole Internet in order to silence dissent or even as an act of cyberwar, truth be told they won’t be any more successful in that endeavor.