On January 14th, we received news about a proposed cybersecurity bill in Venezuela that puts the digital rights of Venezuelans — and the entire internet in the country — in jeopardy. The news came just two days after NetBlocks reported that Wikipedia was blocked by the public telecommunications company (CANTV).
A “Venezuelan cyberspace”?
This Monday, news leaked that the government is about to introduce a bill to the Constituent National Assembly (ANC), a legislative body organized by the Maduro government and whose legitimacy is disputed. The proposal — called the Constitutional Law of Cyberspace of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — declares Venezuelan sovereignty over cyberspace, stating that its use in any form is a matter of public and strategic interest impacting the “integral defense” of the nation. In order to establish “internal peace” and “political order,” the bill proposes the creation of an all-powerful authority to manage and control the internet in Venezuela.
The bill puts forward rules that are in clear violation of human rights. For example, it would require messaging service providers to censor content without a prior judicial order or respect for minimum guarantees for due process. Additionally, it introduces the dangerous concept of “content security” to legitimize tools, policies, rules, and “preventive actions” to “counteract hate” on the internet. It would also establish discretional control over vaguely defined “critical infrastructure,” opening up channels for further abuse.
If Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly passes the bill, the Maduro government will have more tools than ever before to censor and control every aspect of the internet in Venezuela.
The digital rights context in Venezuela
The social, economic, and political situation in Venezuela is not getting any better. Neither is the status of human rights in the country or the situation of freedom expression and privacy online. Access Now has been investigating and reporting on incidents related to digital rights in the country in recent years that highlight moves toward a tighter control of the internet.
Censorship: In May 2017 the government issued Executive Order 2489, which extended the “state of emergency” and authorized the government to police the internet and filter content. This measure further deteriorated the situation traditional media already faced under a 2004 law on media responsibility (Ley Resorte) flagged by critics as a government censorship tool. In response the 2017 Executive Order, Access Now and 23 other civil society organizations released a joint letter expressing our concern and demanding the government of Nicolas Maduro to respect human rights.
Later that year, the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly (whose legitimacy has been questioned by international entities) approved the Anti-hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence. According to this law, anyone promoting hate or violence publicly (including on social media) could be sent to prison for up to 20 years. The enforcement of this law has lead to many actions from the government that go against the right to freedom of expression and information.
In June 2018, the public internet service provider (CANTV) blocked the TOR network, a tool used to browse anonymously. Venezuelans rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and the TOR network to stay anonymous and safe online, in a context of political oppression against the press and political opposition. Further, this kind of blocking of an entire and important platform constitutes an internet shutdown, according to the #KeepItOn coalition.
Old and neglected internet infrastructure: In July 2017, Access Now reported connectivity disruptions in Venezuela in the lead-up to the Constituent Assembly elections. There were two possible causes for the disruptions: either the Maduro government intentionally throttled internet access (as it had done before), or the network infrastructure collapsed due to an extensive lack of maintenance. This last scenario seems likely due to the economic crisis. The government has neglected to invest in connectivity for many years, and Venezuelans are paying the price.
Attacks to civil society: Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline identified a new type of attack against activists in Venezuela in 2017. The Doubleswitch attack, as we called it, targeted activists and journalists to steal social media credentials and replace their public handles in order to impersonate them.
Take action to help us stop this bill
Together with the organization Derechos Digitales and Venezuelan activists, we analyzed the proposal and wrote a letter to demand the rejection of the newly proposed cybersecurity bill. We also call upon international entities to stay alert and express their rejection of the draconian measures intended to control what’s left of the free and open internet in Venezuela.