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How are APC members improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our members, supported by APC subgranting. In Venezuela, EsLaRed embarked on a rigorous study to document communications blockages in order to empower citizens to access censored content through the use of digital technologies.

Concerned about how digital technologies bring new challenges to fighting censorship, APC member EsLaRed (known by their full name as Fundación Escuela Latinoamericana de Redes) has been defending access to information and freedom of expression in restrictive environments, with a recent study focusing on communication blockages in Venezuela.

Dedicated to the development and promotion of research and dissemination of information and communications technologies (ICTs), EsLaRed began its ICT training programmes in 1992 and officially registered as a non-profit in 1999, putting forth two central objectives in their mission:

  • To develop and promote activities of human resources and research in telecommunications, computer networks and information technologies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

  • To perform research and development on technology transfer and appropriate technology in order to foster scientific, technical and social progress in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Their research projects are numerous, as evidenced by regular contributions to the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report over the years, ranging from such topics as internet rights and democratisation to women’s rights, gender and ICTs. The projects are undertaken with a view to developing insight on key processes, trends and implications for technology use and policy in Venezuela.

Documenting and circumventing censorship

From October 2020 through January 2021, EsLaRed undertook a project entitled “Communicational blockade and its impact on the violation of economic, social and cultural rights and internet rights, and the use of digital technologies as an alternative to promote social justice in Venezuela”. With the support of an APC subgrant, the project set out to investigate online communications blockages by the government of Venezuela. In doing so, they set as a goal the creation of solutions that would empower citizens to defend their digital rights.

According to EsLaRed, communications blockages occur when “internet services are affected by the occurrence of induced and uninduced failures, which represent technological restrictive measures that affect access and promote communication blocking events.” Their project affirmed that such blockages are a violation of human rights and examined ways that digital technologies could be used to promote social justice. As EsLaRed cautioned in a recent GISWatch report, the strategic management of data by the government “should be handled with caution, as political factors can influence decision making and subject citizens to unfair measures and restrictions, which can generate social chaos and discrimination.”

What the research revealed and documented was how censorship has been impacting organisations, particularly those run by human rights defenders and journalists critical of governmental abuses of power, through blocking of access to websites and online content. In addition to this documentation, EsLaRed was also able to show how organisations can circumvent this form of censorship, and also identify instances where publications have been removed from public access.

In their report on the project, EsLaRed explained, “It’s about establishing a guided way specifying what are the recommendations that a Venezuelan citizen should follow in order to access a website that was deleted or cancelled, permitting the reading and monitoring of the free expression of people and various means of social communication.”

Offering guidance 

By presenting a situational analysis of communication blockages in Venezuela that prevent citizens from accessing essential goods and services on the internet, EsLaRed was able to detect, quantitatively and qualitatively, the existence of cuts and blockages observed and denounced by different media.

This research led to the production of the “Good practice guide to bypassing the communication blockade on the web”, an in-depth anti-blocking guide that is available to the public (in Spanish). They specify that although contexts can change and the guide does not represent a definitive solution over time, they are nonetheless exploring options for maintaining the guide with minimal financial support in order to update it annually.

Understanding that not all organisations and internet users have extensive technical knowledge, the guide sets out simple solutions laid out in short, accessible steps. By empowering citizens to understand how to circumvent communications blockages, EsLaRed has made a meaningful impact in supporting access to information and freedom of expression in restrictive environments.

This piece is a version of the information provided by EsLaRed as part of the project “Communicational blockade and its impact on the violation of economic, social and cultural rights and internet rights, and the use of digital technologies as an alternative to promote social justice in Venezuela”, adapted for the Seeding Change column, which presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through its core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.

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