Day 6

Why Venezuela's internet shuts down every time Juan Guaido speaks

The Venezuelan government has interfered with online activity for years, but now internet activists are sounding the alarm about a dramatic rise in online censorship.

Crackdown on social media is making it harder for the opposition to organize

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido speaks during a presentation of his plan to stop the 'occupation of power' by President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday in Caracas. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

Power outages aren't the only blackouts that Venezuelans are dealing with as seemingly deliberate internet outages are on the rise amid heightened political tensions between President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition.

Social media services and news websites  have been frequently blocked by the government-run telecommunications giant, CANTV — which controls 80 per cent of Venezuala's web infrastructure. 

Its target, according to South American journalist John Otis, is opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, who, since January, has been escalating his campaign to topple the socialist leader.

While state-led partial and full internet blockages have been regular occurrences across Venezuala for at least seven years, Otis says their frequency has jumped since Guaido challenged the president's legitimacy.   

"The Maduro government ... basically controls all of the traditional press; they control most of the TV and radio stations," Otis told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"The only thing the opposition has to communicate with its people ... is through internet web sites and streaming services."

Internet access watchdog NetBlocks reported Thursday that the most recent communications outage occurred on Wednesday for more than three hours — a period when Guaido delivered a news conference.

Periscope, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud and other websites have been regularly blocked during appearances by Guaido, according to Netblocks, a non-government group based in Europe that monitors internet censorship.

Heard everywhere but home

Despite the blockages inside Venezuela, Guaido's comments are still heard outside the country, as international media picks up his speeches and press conferences to ensure the world knows exactly what's happening. 

Otis recalled a period while he was in Colombia, saying: "A lot of my friends and colleagues in Venezuela, they were trying to watch Guaido's speech ... and they weren't able to find it and they weren't really able to get a hold of it until much later."

This means that those most affected don't hear his message, Otis says, making it "harder for the opposition to organize."

"Some of the more recent opposition protests have had a lot fewer people turning out — that may be because people didn't get the word," he told Bambury.

Slowest internet speeds in Latin America

Amidst the socialist government's blocks, Venezuela has some of the slowest internet speeds in Latin America. Often, a block may not even be noticed given the regular inconsistency of access.

"It doesn't really behoove the government to improve internet service because they know the opposition uses that so much," said Otis.

Anti-government protesters demand the resignation of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. One demonstrator holds a sign scrawled with a message in Spanish that says: 'No more dictatorship.' (Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, organizers and Maduro opponents — including media outlets — have found workarounds.

As in countries like China where certain websites are consistently blocked, virtual private networks (VPN) can usually get around any blockages.

Media organizations have also started sharing short video reports and stories on the messaging platform WhatsApp, "so, you don't have to get on a website and download things," Otis said.

"Internet costs for the average Venezuelan are quite high, so they don't want to spend all day online trying to get access to something," he added, pointing out that it can cost a quarter of their salary.

To hear the full interview with John Otis, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.