John Kerry, The Internet, and Freedom of Expression in Venezuela

Venezuelan open software activist Luigino Bracci Roa addresses John Kerry's recent accusations about internet freedom in Venezuela, explaining that far from being limited, social networks "have played the exact opposite role: as a propaganda tool to galvanize opposition mobilization, and a tool to intimidate Chavismo". The article also details how high profile pro-opposition figures from within the U.S. helped in both these tasks.


Freedom of expression on the internet is an issue for thousands of artists, particularly in our beloved Venezuela. Recently the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, pointed to supposed restrictions in our access to the internet, saying that the Venezuelan government meant to repress oppositional dissent by blocking certain websites.

In Venezuela no one took Kerry’s accusation seriously.

For the Venezuelan opposition, online social networks have played the exact opposite role: as a propaganda tool to galvanize their mobilization, and a tool to intimidate Chavismo. Chavistas have actually been worried by social media trends calling for violent action against the physical integrity of numerous compatriots and their families. Truthfully though, what bothers us about Kerry’s statement and other US politicians is that they are causing a detour from the actual debate at hand.

In spite of what you may think of Maduro and social networks, here is the uncomfortable truth:

Never beforein our country’s history have foreign corporations offered products and services to millions of Venezuelans without state regulation on those companies.

We understand the danger here:

When McDonald’s wanted to establish business in Venezuela, it had to surpass a series of legal hurdles set by the Venezuelan state, including verification of food quality, health and sanitation codes, workers’ rights issues, respective tax affairs, and regulations by state and municipality. Yes, McDonald’s hamburgers are a poor excuse for food, but without a state to regulate them, they could be even worse.

In order for Monsanto to offer seed and products in Venezuela, they must also adhere to different laws and regulations. If those didn’t exist, Monsanto would overflow the country with transgenic seed and their lawyers would bring our farmers to their knees if they refused to use them, as is the norm in the United States and Europe.

The day that Ford, Chevrolet, or Toyota wished to sell their automobiles in our country, they had to comply with strict regulations for passenger safety and environmental statutes that prevent highly toxic emissions, as well as guarantee quality in tires. (Remember the problems with the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires?) The vehicles also had to prove themselves compatible with the fuel sold in Venezuela and offer customer service and support in the country.

If a foreign company buys a Venezuelan newspaper, radio or television network, they also have to follow certain rules. Freedom is not absolute: no media source may be used to foment criminal acts, to call for the overthrow of a government or to promote terrorism.

The phone company Movistar is the property of a European transnational, yet it is also subject to the Law of Telecommunications.

The point is, every international business that sells goods or offers services to Venezuela has to do so while abiding by our laws. They have to be inspected and regulated by the state to assure that they will do us no harm, that the products will not be of hazardous quality and the services will not be deficient. It’s true that the regulating entities leave much to be desired, but it’s surely better that they’re there, as opposed to not at all.

But there is absolutely no Venezuelan law that can regulate social network companies based in the United States. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are for-profit companies that offer products and services to no less than 10 million Venezuelans, but no one can hold them accountable for their actions within the nation. In fact, they don’t even have establishments here.

It is a delicate matter. Millions of Venezuelans “trust” the owners and workers of Twitter, Google and Facebook, giving them permanent access to our personal data, our constant location, photos of our children, all our contacts, our daily routine, our personal secrets, and gossip from work.

But in this article I want to bring to our attention the deep problem of social networks that presented itself during the protests known as La Salida (The Exit). The problem stems from a basic disrespect for our right to peace. As social network users, we want to trust that what appears online will respect the elemental norms of coexistence that are upheld in any country: which means not allowing mass gatherings for violent or criminal activity, no public plans to assassinate fellow citizens, no threats, or exposure of our private information, especially when used as blackmail.

Additionally, we don’t want social networks to be used as tools to disrupt our daily lives, causing damage to our communities and putting some people’s lives at risk. We are not asking for anything extraordinary: we just want Google, Facebook and Twitter (among others) to respect our laws, our societal norms and our judicial system, in the same way they respect those of the United States and England [sic], as well as some other countries.

The problem is that these companies operate abroad. Twitter has no office in Venezuela, and neither do Google or Facebook. Their offices, workers, and master computers where all data is stored can be found in the United States, and perhaps in a few other countries. There’s no way for us to cite or fine their directors, or demand they respect our laws. The only method available is to block them entirely, which is not only a highly unpopular measure, but easily dodged by determined users as well.

This article will be divided into three parts.

  1. To show that the internet in Venezuela, far from being blocked, has been the primary tool for the opposition to convoke violent and oftentimes unconstitutional demonstrations which would not be permitted in any other part of the world.
  2. To show how the opposition has used the internet in ways contrary to the spirit of freedom of expression, by wielding it as a mechanism for threatening Chavista individuals, divulging personal information and putting people’s lives and integrity in danger, as well as violating Venezuelan and international law, without any apparent limitations on behalf of those who control the networks.
  3. To show that in some countries, such as Brazil, they have attempted to do something to resolve similar problems. I humbly suggest here that our politicians and parliamentarians join forces with Brazil and other countries of UNASUR, CELAC, and Alba so that we may demand these US corporations ensure the safety and respect for our citizens, by following our laws.

Internet as a method of organizing #LaSalida

While Mr. Kerry makes his allegations, the right-wing has mobilized vast support through the official pages and accounts of certain student movements and political parties. Even personal accounts of the [incarcerated hard-right leader] Leopoldo Lopez has 2.8 million followers, Henrique Capriles has 4.4 million, and La Patilla [anti-government news site] has 3.7 million.

We see here some examples:

Many of these protests were meant to be peaceful, but ended in violent acts.

Additionally, there were calls for not-so-peaceful demonstrations:

Without giving too much importance to Kerry’s claims, every Venezuelan knows these guarimba barricades and protests have been organized through social networks and the internet by somewhat irresponsible people often located outside the country who hold accounts with thousands or even millions of followers. Each call has ended in confrontations with security forces, leaving behind dozens injured and even deaths.

In the case of public figures such as Robert Alonso or salsa king Willie Colon, they have actively participated in the summoning of violent street activity from within the United States, using the social networks whose establishments reside within the same country. There is no register of a US government spokesperson or police official who has called attention to this form of incitement going on from within their country.

Would they allow similar usage in their own countries?

The hypocrisy of the United States and England [sic: in reference to the United Kingdom] is how they have used the weight of law to punish those who have made similar calls to [violent] action within their borders. Not only do they block accounts and erase pages, but they arrest those involved. They’ve even enlisted to steadfast support of the social network companies.

Some examples (See photo in right column: No this isn’t Chacao, it’s Tottenham, England in 2011)

On August 6th, 2011, Mark Duggan, 29, a black man and father of four, was shot down by the metropolitan police of London. This resulted in fierce protest throughout the country, leaving 5 more casualties in its wake.

A few days later, on August 16th, two men were arrested and sentenced to four years in jail for inciting the consequent protests through social media.

One of them was a 20 yr old man who had created a Facebook event entitled “the Smash Down of Norwich Town,” in which he meant to start a riot in his city. No one showed up to the event except the police who were monitoring the page, and the young man was promptly arrested and sentenced to four years in jail.

Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time, “When people use social networks for violence, we have to detain them.” Within weeks, the British government had met with executives of Facebook, Twitter and RIM (Blackberry), to analyze the disturbances and the use of social networks in their promotion. A Facebook representative commented afterwards that they had taken necessary measures to ensure the prompt elimination of all offensive or violent material posted to their website.

Patrick Spence, regional director of Blackberry, offered information and data of those who had been using the device to send messages concerning the disturbances. Essentially, as we would say in Venezuela, they “ratted them out.”

I can’t imagine what would happen if Blackberry declared it would assist the Venezuelan government in prosecuting instigators. Perhaps we’d see mountains of burning Q5s and Z10s in Altamira (a wealthy area of Caracas).

Even though some organizations disagreed with Cameron’s statements, there were no formal accusations from other governments saying that the Brits were censuring the internet.

To announce the actions of police forces is a felony in other countries

In 2009, Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger were arrested in the United States after revealing on Twitter the actions of police forces that were repressing demonstrators gathered outside the G-20 Summit in Pittsburg.

According to the police, both people used Twitter to contact their fellow protestors and warn them of the police’s whereabouts so they might prepare to act accordingly to avoid being arrested. Madison was found in a room that had equipment for listening to police communication, which in the United States is considered public information.

Afterwards it was revealed that Twitter had collaborated with the police to identify the culprits, and closed all related accounts.

In Venezuela, during these three months of protest, it has been considered “normal” that opposition demonstrators use Twitter to alert others of the imminent arrival of security forces.

There are numerous journalists who use their official Twitter accounts, with their first and last names, to make police whereabouts public. I will not use their names here to ensure that no one feels threatened, and I do not mean to imply I believe they should be prosecuted for their actions. The last thing we need is for people to get arrested for tweeting photos of National Guard tanks outside their homes.

I do not think the Venezuelan government should adopt the practice mentioned above. Quite the contrary. The only point I intend to make is the depth of Mr. John Kerry’s hypocrisy. Let’s keep in mind the Venezuelan police force does not count on support from Facebook, Twitter, or Blackberry to identify any instigators, even if they wished to.

When calling for the assassination of your president on Twitter, it depends if you mean Maduro or Obama

To call for the assassination of a leader is an illegal act in most countries. Colombia still has not recovered from the wave of violence that followed the murder of 1948 presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan.

The United States takes threats to its president very seriously, even if they’re made via social media. Last year Jarvis Britton, 26, was given a year in prison and three on probation for having said he wanted to kill Obama on Twitter. This is just one of many examples.

Perhaps this is the reason why today, May 11th 2014, when I enter the term “kill obama” in the Twitter search engine box, hardly a single result pops up from the past 48 hours. I cannot know if this is because people are afraid to make such threats, or because Twitter is quick to erase them.

However when I searched the term “matar a Maduro,” (kill Maduro), here are some of the tweets that came up from the past 48 hours:

            “The only possible solution is to gun down and kill Maduro, Diasdado, and the dogs of                their government. That is the fate that awaits them.”

            “Sh*t, if my air conditioner breaks I’m personally going to kill Maduro.”

            “He’s a piece of dirt, I hate him with all the strength of my heart. God forgive me, I want                        to kill Maduro.”

            “If the electricity goes out right now I’m going to kill Maduro.”

The fact that our youth converses about the murder of our president in such a trivial manner is worrisome, also because Twitter has hardly deemed it necessary to react to these threats.

If you continue to run searches on Twitter, you can find sinister image threats directed at Maduro, often suggesting the same kind of death that met Muhammed Ghadaffi or Saddam Hussein.

(see third photo in right column)

Not to be left out, I entered “kill John Kerry” in the search box to see what came up. While only one tweet mentioned the assassination of the secretary, I also found an image sent to John Kerry, depicting a group of Ukranian children holding signs that say “Don’t kill us!

In Spain

In Venezuela we tend to trivialize death threats, imagining that those responsible are around 17 to 20 years old, “keyboard gangsters” as we call them, discharging their frustration across social media with very little inclination to transfer their threats to the “real world” and actually kill someone. I hope we never have cause to take these comments seriously. But in Spain, these threats can lead directly to indictment.

A few weeks ago, the Spanish Civil Guard announced the arrest of 21 people who used social networks to “increase terrorism and promote murder.”

One of the tweets that lead to an arrest read “Your dead are our joy and glee,” and depicted a photo of the funeral of a Civil Guard official. Others followed suit, with hashtags such as #rotinhell and #go***yourself.

In Venezuela, unfortunately, similar tweets have become very common. Especially after the death of revolutionary Eliecer Otaiza and the deaths of [10] security personnel, bitter jubilation is expressed across social media, while the names of others are flanked by the words “you’ll be next.”

In fact, we’ve reached the extreme where people post schemes and photos indicating the places where molotov cocktails can be thrown at National Guard (GNB) tanks to do those most damage to those inside them.

It’s important to note that these tanks are only used to disperse tear gas, and the National Guard is under strict orders not to use any lethal weapons against demonstrators. The few cases in which excess force has been noted, severe punishment [military imprisonment] has been enforced.

Again, I’m not trying to insinuate that Venezuela should take measures similar to those practiced in Spain, the US and England against their respective citizens, although it would be interesting to debate further on the matter. These comparisons merely serve the purpose of revealing constant double standards in critiques of our country.

To provide personal info and addresses of Chavistas in order to plan attacks on them

Perhaps one of the most reproachable deeds committed by members of the opposition has been to abuse their freedom of expression in order to publish information about individuals who support the revolutionary process and live in upper-middle class areas, with the objective of intimidating that person and their family. It’s been done, even, with journalists of public media.

One of the worst cases occurred on April 26th, when a group of young guarimberos tried to block off the highway of Prados del Este, in Southeastern Caracas, armed with molotov cocktails and other handmade weapons. When the GNB intercepted their blockade, the youths fled to the nearby neighborhood of El Güire, and broke and entered homes of numerous people, in attempts to avoid being detained.

What would you do if an unknown person forced entry into your home? Wouldn’t you try to get them to leave? In fact, in John Kerry’s homeland, the 2nd amendment permits citizens to bear arms and, in the majority of the country, the use of said arms is authorized under the “Your Home Your Castle” law, which specifies authorized shooting against one who forces entry into your home.

The inhabitants of El Güire did not reach those extremes, though a few residents decided to hand the invaders over to the GNB. Others called the police to have them removed from their homes. In total, 18 guarimberos were arrested that day.

Some journalists filmed these residents of El Güire on their GoPro cameras. Here in Venezuela we have many video journalists who are directly tied to the opposition, whose job has been to hang around opposition protests (especially those that promise to turn violent) and record everything on those tiny cameras designed for extreme sports. Later they edit and publish those videos, which almost always portray the guarimberos as heroes.

These journalists posted their videos on Youtube and La Patilla, which were then shared widely as others attempted to identify those indignant El Güire residents and gather their personal data. Many succeeded in tracking down the full names, address, work place, photos, and friends of some of the residents. They posted the information in lists titled “Toads,” which in Venezuela is a very offensive term for “snitch” and is practically a death sentence in certain environments.

Hundreds of Twitter accounts made up the “Toads” campaign. The most notorious participant was Willie Colon, who utilized his 2.6 million followers to post photos and personal data of those who handed the militant protestors over to the GNB.

It’s necessary to mention that so far, none of Willie Colon’s tweets or any others that divulged peoples’ private information has been eliminated by Twitter, who paradoxically recommends that any person who wishes to report any threatening activity address their local authority. Of course, if the Venezuelan authorities were to ask Twitter to delete those messages, the company would accuse Venezuela of promoting internet censorship.

It could be said that by attacking Twitter and Facebook, we are attacking the messenger. But the fact of the matter is, if these happenings had occurred in the United States of England, these corporations would have responded by quickly and astutely eliminating all threats, blackmail, and messages of incitement. The heart of the problem is this: the Twitter corporation (and other social media groups) do not obey elemental laws of our country, and in refusing to do so they become a multiplying factor in today’s political hate and aggression.

What to do?

It’s important that Venezuelans begin to discuss not only the benefits but also the perils that social media and their corresponding corporate leaders may cause in our daily life.

The objective of this discussion would not be to censure, block, or prohibit normal use, but to demand that our integrity as individuals not be altered or threatened by a small group of people who wish to shield themselves behind virtual anonymity to say what they would never say in person.

In Rwanda in 1994, a million people were murdered, sometimes at the hands of their own neighbors, after certain radio stations began to champion the extremist cause of a group of militants. Will we wait to see if these threats are empty, we will wait until people die because of them before we begin the discussion?

Let us not forget that certain notorious tweets already have cost others their lives in recent months.

Journalist Nelson Bocaranda (1.9 million followers) promoted the April attacks on health centers (CDI) in the country.

Retired general Angel Vivas advised protestors to string barbed wire at a height of 1.2 meters above the group to behead passings motorists, which directly lead to the death of at least 2 people.

Brazil is having its discussions about the internet, motivated by the revelations of Edward Snowden, after realizing their government was the target for US spying. This should be equally concerning for us in Venezuela.

For that reason, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff passed last March the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, a plan for social network companies to guarantee neutrality and the right to privacy on the web.

We must highlight that the Civil Rights Framework was discussed for many months and initially had meant to be more radical. For example, the original plan asked that Google, Facebook, and Twitter build data centers in Brazilian territory, so that its citizens information not be stored in the United States. This would have been a great example of technological sovereignty, but that aspect of the plan had to be discarded for it to be approved.

When it was finally approved, Article 11 read, “In any operation of collection, storage, retention and treating of personal data or communications data by connection providers and internet applications providers where, at least, one of these acts takes place in the national territory, the Brazilian law must be mandatorily respected, including in regard the rights to privacy, to protection of personal data, and to secrecy of private communications and of logs. The established in Art. 11 applies to the data collected in the national territory and to the content of the communications in which at least one of the terminals is placed in Brazil.”

In other words, Brazil obligated Twitter, Facebook and Google to comply with their laws, even though their establishments are located in another country. Venezuela should follow their example.

The Civil Framework for Internet also dictates, in Article 12, different sanctions for those companies which may violate these norms, which would be applied in a progressive manner, starting with warnings, then on to fines, temporary suspension and finally total prohibition of activity within the country. That is to say, Brazil gives its courts the legal authority to completely block a web page or service if it decides, on repeated occasions, that they are flouting Brazilian law. I have not heard formal complaints from any country’s government on the subject.

This is an excellent opportunity to unite as Latin American countries, through multilateral organizations such as UNASUR, Mercosur, Alba, Celac, and others to generate common legislation that would confront transnational interests in our internet networks. It’s time to stand up and demonstrate that we have sovereignty and dignity! We will not wait until worse tragedies occur before we decide to take action.


A longtime collaborator and member of the editing team of Venezuelan media site aporrea.org, Luigino Bracci Roa is a jealous defender of Free Software and freedom of expression. Translated by Z.C. Dutka for Venezuelanalysis.com