Published on June 20th, 2016 | by EJC0
Zello? It’s Venezuela. They Want Their Internet Freedom Back.
Are we witnessing a shift in the use of mobile applications during times of crisis? The Venezuelan people have exhibited crafty and adamant means of fighting back government sanctioned censorship.
In light of the social unrest that has disrupted their country for many years, the Venezuelan people have been innovative and persistent in regards to their means of communication.
During the 2014 Student Protests, the Venezuelan government attempted to stifle communication of the events in and outside of the country. The protests were lead by students who were demonstrating against the country’s insecurity. They brought attention to the lack of basic goods and the increase in violence, especially against students. During these protests, there were clashes between the opposition and the government forces, which ended in the deaths of students and many other citizens, and triggered significant media coverage towards the country’s state of affairs. Clearly, this would not be the type of press the Venezuelan government would hope to garner; indeed, many national and international news outlets were censored and had their credentials revoked. The next step taken by the government was obvious: the most-used social media platform in Venezuela, Twitter, was blocked for 36 hours.
This type of action is not uncommon for the people of Venezuela. About 95% of them rely on the national telecommunications commission, CONATEL, as an internet provider. During tense and crucial times the provider has been known to slow down internet speed, an action called “throttling”.
Strong ties between the government and CONATEL result in more systematic blocks
In April 2013, ferocious campaign battles between the current president, Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles emerged in the lead up to the presidential elections. Maduro’s campaign rode on the political fervour leftover by former president Hugo Chavez. Capriles was excluded from public channels and had little coverage in private media. Therefore, he decided to launch his own online channel: Capriles.tv. The government grew increasingly aware of the country’s social media use when Capriles surpassed former president Hugo Chavez in Twitter followers at four million. At that point, the Venezuelan government was actively aware of social media’s power. In 2014, the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information and the Vice Ministry of Social Networks was instituted to control the Venezuelan Web 2.0. But the governmental grasp over social media usage isn’t just moderated here. In Article 27 of Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (the ResorteME Law), it’s stated that any sort of activity that promotes anxiety in the country should be removed. This includes messages from Twitter accounts, websites, and other service providers.
A few reports show that Venezuelans were faced with an anchored and growing wall of censorship. With the government stating that Twitter’s activity was inciting anxiety in the country, Venezuelans turned to applications and websites like Zello and DolarToday. Zello is a free application that is downloaded to convert the smartphone into a walkie-talkie device. The application reported more than 150,000 downloads a day in the week of the protests. During the protests there was a significant decline in usage and the Chief Technology Director of Zello, Alexey Gavrilov, concluded that they had been blocked. In turn, Gavrilov changed Zello’s coding to avoid Venezuela’s block: “We just released an update to the Android application which changes the IP addresses and makes it much harder to block them, and we also submitted updates for iOS and BlackBerry… So people with Android can already use Zello again in Venezuela.” CONATEL has shown its pro government stance – through its decisions made under the ResorteME Law they’ve managed to block websites without a judicial reasoning and threatened ISPs with holdings.
The issue is even more widespread, especially when it comes to information about the country’s economy
DolarToday is also an influential platform for the Venezuelan public. The noteworthy website and smartphone application, defines itself as: “News without censorship of Venezuela”. It is a US based website that delivers news on the financial and political situation in Venezuela. A unique element of DolarToday is its publication of the conversion rate between US Dollar and Venezuelan Bolivar. As of 2013, Venezuela has blocked about 400 websites that report political and economic information, making it difficult for citizens to come across basic information like the price of the “parallel dollar”. Since media is forbidden from publishing the Bolivar’s conversion rate, DolarToday provides the public much needed daily updates on these exchange rates.
The publication of this exchange rate is illegal and has been denounced by the Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, as a strategy of “economic war”.
Nonetheless, the website has 1 million visitors daily and between one to five million app downloads from the Google Play store – stated to be the most downloaded app in Venezuela. Although the Venezuelan government wants nothing more than to keep DolarToday blocked, the website creators have managed to bypass this. In March 2015, CONATEL attempted to block the site, but in the process took down websites like Amazon, Snapchat, and Pinterest, which are all hosted on the Amazon cloud service. DolarToday confirmed this via their Twitter:
Yet, DolarToday and Zello continue to fight back
Ostensibly, it seems easy for the government to wipe out the Venezuelan public’s reach to this information, especially since 87% of the population uses CONATEL as their network provider. But efforts on behalf of those like DolarToday and Zello are relentless. DolarToday uses mirror sites on “content distribution networks” with cryptic links on social media pages in order to bypass government controls. Whenever a mirror site is blocked by the government, DolarToday creates a new one automatically at 20 minute intervals. Mirror sites are commonly used when there is a spike in visitors to replicate the same information on multiple sources.
Regardless of the government’s attempts to restrict and censor access of information, the Venezuelan people clearly value the use of social media as a leading tool for communication. Multiple obstacles continue to impede the flow of economic and political information and the reality of the governmental control on communication and expression is prevalent. But one thing is for certain: there are innovative technology directors like the creators of DolarToday and Zello who are at the forefront fighting against this censorship. These initiatives exhibit a commitment to prevail against oppressive institutions, and set the foundation for similar solutions in future scenarios.
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