Targeted Internet blockages highlight political battles in Venezuela

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2012 file photo, supporters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles take photos with their smart phones as he campaigns in Caracas, Venezuela. The battle for Venezuela is being fought as much online as in the streets, with opposition activists flooding social media with video of security force aggression, Internet service reported cut to most of a conflict-rattled western state and the government blocking select websites. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

Associated Press + More

By FRANK BAJAK and VIVIAN SEQUERA, Associated Press

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (AP) — The battle for Venezuela is being fought as vigorously online as in the streets, with Internet service cut off to a strife-torn university city and the government blocking selected websites and a "walkie-talkie" service widely used by protesters.

Internet connectivity was gradually restored to San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, Friday morning after an outage of more than 30 hours that also affected smartphones.

The tense streets smelled like burned trash after another night in which police firing tear gas broke up protests as they had Wednesday night when Internet service was cut.

Public transit was not operating, many street lights were dark and low-flying air force jets buzzed the city.

"It's an abuse!" Jeffrey Guerrero, a flour wholesaler, complained before Internet service was restored. "We've had to find out what's happening in our city from others." He held up his iPhone to show how his Twitter service had halted.

The socialist government later blamed "accidents" and "vandalism" by right-wing groups for the outage.

The current wave of anti-government demonstrations, the fiercest unrest since President Hugo Chavez died last March, began in early February in San Cristobal, home to one private and three public universities.

On Thursday night, the U.S. company Zello told The Associated Press that Venezuela's state-run telecoms company, CANTV, had blocked access to the push-to-talk "walkie-talkie" app for smartphones and computers that has been a hugely popular organizing tool for protesters from Egypt to Ukraine.

Zello supports up to 600 users on a single channel, and company CEO Bill Moore said it became the No. 1 app in Ukraine on Thursday for both the iOS and Android operating systems. In just one day this week, Zello reported more than 150,000 downloads in Venezuela.

Venezuela's information war escalated last week as the government blocked images on Twitter after violence in Caracas claimed three lives amid protests over woes including rampant inflation, food shortages and one of the world's highest murder rates.

The socialist government cemented its near-monopoly on broadcast media during Chavez's 14-year rule, and social media have been crucial for young opposition activists as they organize and exchange information on deaths, injuries and arrests.

Activists also reported a serious nationwide degradation in Internet service provided by CANTV, which handles about 90 percent of the country's traffic.

Websites blocked included NTN24.com, run by the eponymous Colombia-based regional news network, and online pastebin.com bulletin boards that cyberactivists use to anonymously share information.

President Nicolas Maduro ordered NTN24 removed from the air last week after it broadcast video of a student killed by a gunshot to the head in Caracas.

U.S.-based company Renesys, a top analyzer of global Internet traffic, confirmed the website blocking and service degradation, but said it could not determine if CANTV was decreasing bandwidth.

"I certainly don't know from our data if it is deliberate, although given the context, it seems plausible," said Renesys researcher Doug Madory.

Venezuela's traffic to its close ally Cuba over the ALBA-1 undersea cable, meanwhile, appeared unaffected, he said.

Programmer and cyberactivist Jose Luis Rivas said the Internet went out in most of the city of 600,000 about midnight Wednesday.

Since protests accelerated last week, activists have posted YouTube videos of riot police and National Guard breaking up demonstrations and, they claim, firing at unarmed civilians. Sometimes, the security forces are accompanied by pistol-packing motorcycle gangs of Chavista loyalists.

Rivas said that on Wednesday night, before the Internet went out in San Cristobal, people were live-streaming video of a crackdown by security forces.