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Internet

As Venezuela's crisis deepens, its ICT infrastructure is withering

Venezuela is in crisis. The South American nation is in the midst of an economic and social disaster unlike anything it has experienced before with food shortages and rationing of the country’s electricity supply.

It was only on July 4 that President Nicolas Maduro finally lifted the power supply rationing, which had been put in place in April in response to crippling droughts that hampered Venezuela’s hydroelectric generators.

The electricity cuts were severe. Schools were closed on Fridays to preserve power and public servants saw their work week slashed to two days all the while Maduro’s opposition criticised the government for failing to invest in its power grid to avoid crises and blackouts like this.

On top of that, food security remains a massive issue. People have resorted to rioting and looting to feed themselves. At one point, 400 looters were arrested for stealing food to feed their families.

People are going hungry and in some towns and villages, they’re literally in the dark and in a roundabout way this has led to concerns over the future of the country’s press and internet.

Citizens are understandably angry and upset with the powers that be but their access to information, opposing views and communications has been stymied, at least indirectly, by electricity cuts and more directly by a press that is anything but free and independent.

Non-profit Freedom House, which tracks press and internet freedom globally, still lists Venezuela’s press as “not free” while its internet access and controls are deemed “partly free”.

“Internet penetration in Venezuela remains extremely uneven, with a significant divide between rural and urban areas. The quality of internet access is also low, a problem exacerbated by the restricted access to foreign currency, which has led to deterioration of telecommunication infrastructure,” said Freedom House in its assessment of the country.

Venezuela has some of the slowest internet speeds in South America at an average of 2.3Mbps while internet penetration remains around the 2% mark. Even before this crisis hit fever pitch, the Venezuelan government was not the most welcoming of the internet or allowing unrestricted access for its citizens.

In 2014 during a spate a protests, President Maduro cut off the services of ISPs and select TV stations to hamper the flow of information while budgets for internet investment have been cut over the years. But this was nothing new either, back during the Hugo Chavez era, the country’s largest telecoms company CANTV was nationalised.

Private companies feel the brunt of this lack of investment too. Last August Movistar was forced to suspend new account registrations for mobile internet as its infrastructure could not take any further operations.

Venezuela was already sorely in need of investment in its ailing communications networks and now it has only been set further back by its latest crisis. The food shortages take precedent above internet access but it still leaves Venezuela in the dust compared to its South American neighbours.

Whether it’s intentional or not, these cases of fraught communication and information flow continue to occur in 2016 with the wide scale power outages that hinder Venezuelans.

“The government knows that Venezuela lags behind the Americas regarding internet speed, and apparently is not willing to improve the service,” said Venezuelan journalist Luis Carlos Diaz last year in an interview accusing the government of wilfully inhibiting the internet.  “I’m not confusing malice with ignorance. They are not idiots; this is a political decision. They have trapped us in some kind of connectivity basement.”

Venezuela’s very real crisis affects everyone, from cities to villages, but the state of the internet in the country has a poor track record when it comes to fair and open access. The infrastructure may be poor and the government may unwilling to invest significantly but there are other factors at play as well.

In January 2015 the government-owned CANTV, which accounts for more than 80% of internet in the country, experienced some of its worst blackouts prior to this current crisis. One blackout happened [Spanish] around the same time that President Maduro visited China and left many critics of the government feeling like it couldn’t have been a coincidence.  Go back to 2013 and CANTV services were also disrupted in the run up to elections.

The Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) in Venezuela published a study [Spanish] in May that documented the extent of website blocking and connection speeds in the country between November 2015 and January 2016, which included the latest parliamentary elections in December.

Most of the websites blocks centred on websites about currency exchange (44%), given the bolívar’s weak position; media outlets (19%) and blogs (12%) that criticised the government. The study also found evidence of the censorship of anonymity tools like, like VPNs and proxies, that would allow users to hop over these barriers.

The blocks were instituted under the vague Law on Social Responsibility on Radio, Television and Electronic Media that includes bans on content that could “disrespect authorities”. The law initially targeted traditional broadcast media, which caused a greater shift to online media but a 2010 amendment allowed for the law to oversee the internet.

The crisis in Venezuela is deepening. At the core of the epidemic is food shortage. This remains the priority but after that there will still be serious questions over the flow of and access to information so Venezuela can better hold their decision makers to account.

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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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