September 14, 2017

The Frontlines of Cyber Repression: The Venezuelan Digital Caudillo



To say that public discontent in Venezuela reached new heights over the past few months is an understatement. The state is on the verge of collapse and the internal response is to batten down the hatches with both violent reactions and online attacks.

The government responses in July and August—including violent repression and arbitrary detentions—shocked the world, prompting sanctions and condemnation. Given the extent of the physical crackdown, it probably comes as no surprise that there are significant digital responses as well, building on years of restricting Internet access and offline retaliation for online dissent. As part of our continuing series examining the Frontlines of Cyber Repression, we turn to Venezuela.

As Venezuelan journalist Luis Carlos Diaz notes, “we are facing a new class of cyberwar… affecting freedom of speech on the Internet and ending critiques against government. This is a sort of digital paramilitarism, in which they seek…to eliminate people in social networks.” Our research suggests that cyber conflict waged to maintain internal security is more pernicious than any international interstate cyber conflicts to date.

Cyber repression in Venezuela takes two forms—digital actions that shut down online spaces for freedom of expression and offline punishment, including physical violence. These moves are critical setbacks because cyber activism is strong in Venezuela, often aided by dissidents spread throughout the globe.

A joint statement from 21 civil society and media groups issued in May describes how the censorship practices applied to traditional media have compelled people to turn to the Internet as an essential tool for freedom of expression and access to information.

The government has responded by blocking websites and restricting content. As the joint letter states, “the official discourse towards the [I]nternet, and specifically to social networks, is disturbing: the director of the National Telecommunications Commission has recently declared that social networks are ’dangerous’ and a tool for ’non-conventional war.’” Common tactics that are evolving include blocking websites, encouraging self-censorship and content removal through third-party liability, and implementing sweeping laws that prohibit any content that threatens “public order.”

For example, in July 2015, the news agency Infobae reported that its information portal was blocked following the publication of two critical articles. On Oct. 1, 2015, the director of La Patilla, the country’s top digital outlet, reported that traffic on its site had been blocked in Caracas by Cantv, the state Internet service provider. In addition, a “cyber army of militants,” known as “la tropa” (the troop), moved to enable the government to respond through aggressive offensive cyber tactics.

Internet access has reportedly deteriorated significantly since May 2016, when the government declared a state of emergency and officially authorized online content filtering and Internet policing.

A Netizen report outlines recent incidents:

  • On June 28, Internet users across Venezuela reported that multiple major web and social media sites had been taken offline for an hour. According to Venezuelan Intelligence, Cantv’s DNS servers were not responding to requests on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or Periscope.
  • In late August, President Nicolas Maduro ordered officials to investigate Twitter employees in Venezuela for suspending the accounts of 180 government employees and chavistas (supporters of former President Hugo Chávez).
  • Maduro also vowed to create thousands of new accounts, presumably for trolling purposes, to continue the “battle on social media.”

The more pressing threat is the use of conventional violence in response to digital activism, a blurring of domains uncommon in cyber conflict. According to the 2016 Freedom on the Net study, online reporters have faced arbitrary arrests and confiscation of equipment while covering political events, protests, and queues to buy supplies. Other reports indicate horrific violence in response to liberation technology.

The hope that digital activism would offer a simple route to countering the power a state holds over its population continues to diminish because the international system offers no response to the challenge of digital repression. Digital caudillos are rising up to contain any threat to the state from online activists.

Digital repression is easy when control of online systems is held by the state, a continuation of the idea that a strong state maintains a monopoly on violence. Monopolies extend much further than simple violence; the monopoly on information and the transmission of information represents a significant threat to progress. Until we recognize this threat and its importance, activism will be limited in the online sphere and, even more worrisome, activism will continue to lead to violent conventional terror perpetrated by authoritarian states.