Google has unveiled a tool meant to help fight press censorship around the world, testing it first in Venezuela, where journalists say they’re battling a government bent on burying online stories that expose corruption and human rights abuses.
News junkies in Venezuela clicking on links to independent websites have been frustrated in recent years by messages on their screens saying the pages don’t exist — a problem most blame on government moves to block access to critical information.
“It’s very hard to get news to the people,” said Melanio Escobar, a Venezuelan journalist and social activist who tested the Intra app on Google’s behalf before it was launched this month. “We promote this and other tools, but it’s not easy.”
The government controls the internet as owner of CANTV, the largest internet service provider with more than 2.5 million customers, and Escobar said smaller, private providers follow its directives to stay in business.
The Press and Society Institute of Venezuela, a press freedom group, says that news websites critical of the government have been increasingly targeted since 2014. A four-day test trying to access 53 websites hundreds of times each day in August found roughly half were blocked, according to researchers. Venezuela’s communications ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment by The Associated Press for this story.
The Android-only app Intra is designed to frustrate that tactic by connecting users’ phones directly to Google servers that access the domain name system — a kind of phone book of the internet. That bypasses any blocks set up by local internet providers, making it harder for governments or other interlopers to deny access certain websites.
The once-wealthy oil nation is plummeting into a deepening political and economic crisis under two decades of socialist rule and President Nicolas Maduro’s government has increasingly squeezed or shut down opposition media he often accuses of taking cues from the U.S. and other foreigners conspiring to overthrow him.
Venezuelan journalists work under the threat of jail or crushing lawsuits, driving several abroad fearing for their personal safety. A pro-government constitutional assembly created last year to bypass the opposition-controlled congress has passed a law decreeing up to 20 years in prison for publishing material deemed hateful.
Jared Cohen, founder and CEO of Jigsaw, a unit of a Google’s parent company, said his team created the app out of an ongoing conversation with journalists and tech-savvy Venezuelans over obstacles they confront disseminating their work. Intra launched worldwide on Oct. 3 after a test run over several months in Venezuela.
Cohen, a former U.S. diplomat who advised both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton on freedom of expression issues in their tenures as secretary of state, said he and his team of engineers saw opportunity for its use around the world.
“We didn’t build Intra for Venezuela,” Cohen said. “But the insights came from our work with Venezuelan journalists.”
The app works on older Android devices that are still used by billions around the world, extending protections built into the phone’s latest model.
Since Intra’s launch, it has been downloaded 130,000 times worldwide, according to Jigsaw. Venezuela is among the top three countries but Jigsaw declined to name the others.
China ranks as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia, while Venezuela is among 30 countries classified as “not free” because of government actions to counter critics on social media, according to a 2017 press freedom report by the Washington-based Freedom House.
Domain name tampering and other high-tech tactics have been used to restrict access to websites such as El Pitazo and Armando.info, both formed by journalists from once-independent newspapers that were bought by pro-government businessmen.
The country’s last-remaining opposition newspaper, El Nacional, has also been frequently blocked as has CNN’s Spanish-language affiliate.
“Our investigative journalism and reporting contains elements that, as we see it, put the government in very uncomfortable situations,” said Cesar Batiz, news director of El Pitazo.
Batiz said he first tried confusing the censors by switching up domains: using elpitazo.info and even elpitazo.ml — an internet code for the African country of Mali — as well as elpitazo.com.
The website took a big hit, however, following a report in September 2017 accusing socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of using his cousins as fronts for illicit business.
The website’s 70,000 daily page visits plummeted the next day to 11,000, Batiz said.
So far the new app hasn’t caught on in large numbers with readers, Batiz said, though the site urges readers to download it with Twitter links of its stories, or through WhatsApp audio messages. It’s struggling to rebuild its base of readers, who rely on news filed by a network of 70 reporters across the country.
“While our website traffic is diminished, we’ve won recognition because people see that we’re fighting for human rights and democratic liberties,” he said. “That is what we want to do.”