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Venezuelan Protestors Report Phones Stolen and Internet Sites Blocked By Authorities

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 18 2014

Protest in Caracas, February 15, 2014. (andresAzp/Flickr)

After five days of clashes between antigovernment protestors and Venezuelan authorities, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez submitted to security forces today to face charges of terrorism for allegedly inciting violent protests against President Nicolás Maduro's government. The protests have resulted in four deaths so far, for which each side blames the other.

Just before turning himself in, Lopez told the congregated crowds that he “[has] nothing to hide.” The Venezuelan authorities, however, appear to be trying to hide plenty. They have banned a Colombian news channel from the air for its coverage of the demonstrations and appear to be blocking numerous Internet sites and online tools used by protestors. Journalists and others have reported on Twitter that police have seized protestors' and journalists' cell phones and are possibly deleting photographs of the protests.

Since February 12, numerous Venezuelan netizens have reported problems accessing certain websites, including Facebook, Twitter and the online paste tool Pastebin. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that photos have been blocked for at least some Venezuelan users.

On February 16, Marianne Diaz, a lawyer, digital activist and Global Voices contributor urged Venezuelans to submit information about Internet blocks to the crowdsourced Internet monitoring site Herdict, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

After several people, including Diaz, tweeted about Internet blocks in Venezuela and asked people to report problems on Herdict, the site saw a significant increase in reporting.

In a phone interview with techPresident, Ryan Budish, Project Director of Herdict, said that in the past 30 days more than 1,500 reports about Venezuela came in, making it the second most reported-on country after China.

“People [in Venezuela] are having the most difficulty accessing several key Internet tools,” Budish told techPresident. “Particularly those that are used for sharing images, especially anonymously, like Pastebin and Pastehtml.”

When asked how reliable the information on Herdict is, Budish explained that while it is technically possible to falsify a report, when you see that a good number of people—say 80, for example—have reported a site is unavailable, then it is likely something is amiss. Also, when filing a report, Herdict uses the IP address to look-up the Internet Service Provider, and that also allows them to verify the country.

One downside to crowdsourcing a site like Herdict is that it will always fall short of a complete picture. Budish elaborated:

People tend to report when something is going on...unlike something like Yelp where you're always hungry and always want to find a good restaurant. We get reporting where some kind of censorship incident is going on but generally people can go about their lives without thinking about censorship, until something happens.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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