Digging into the reality of internet shutdowns in Latin America: An insidious threat

A vendor uses his phone in front of a painting that says “We continue the fight” amid anti-government demonstrations in Bogotá. Colombia, 2021. Photo by Martin Galindo for Long Visual Press / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

This article is written by Laura Vidal, and was originally published in IFEX on December 12, 2023. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In Latin America, shutdowns are not black and white. Tactics to interfere with internet access are often subtle and harder to detect, and comprise a particularly insidious form of censorship. This can pose significant challenges for researchers and activists dedicated to tracking and combating such violations.

The use of internet shutdowns by authoritarian regimes has emerged globally as a serious threat to freedom of expression. While commonly seen as rare in Latin America, a closer look reveals a different reality. Organisations and experts are increasingly noting various nuances and contexts in methods to interfere with internet access that are important to understand in order to identify and counter them.

The essence of a shutdown lies in the intentional disruption of communication services, making them inaccessible or unusable in a specific territory and under particular circumstances.

Shutdowns by authoritarian governments often emerge during (or before) socially sensitive situations – public protests, social unrest, or election times. The voiced justifications for imposing such shutdowns are varied. Sometimes they are cloaked in administrative or judicial orders; other times, there is no explicit directive. However, one point is consistent: an internet shutdown is never a justifiable, proportional response to a crisis.

Read more: Five Latin American media that refuse to be silenced

Governments in Latin America often employ a broader strategy to interfere with access. These can range from the degradation of service quality to directly blocking specific websites. These strategies suppress freedom of expression, access to information, and the overall health of the civic space – but don’t spark the same degree of criticism as shutdowns.

Consider how this plays out in a few different countries.

In Colombia, internet disruptions and disruptions to services like social media or messaging apps occurred during the social protests of 2021. A report by Colombian NGO Fundación Karisma titled Pistolas contra Celulares (“Guns vs. Cellphones”) documented many of these events. Movistar, a prominent Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the region, attributed the internet disruption to cable theft, which had reportedly caused a 25 percent internet outage, predominantly affecting the Aguablanca area. They also explained that repairs were hindered by ongoing protests.

However, the complaints on social media paint a different picture. The primary problem was not centered around Aguablanca, but rather in Siloe, and specifically related to mobile phone connectivity. The nature of these complaints and descriptions point to the possibility of a deliberate intervention, possibly through the use of a signal blocker, rather than infrastructure damage.

According to Carolina Botero, member of Fundación Karisma, censorship was felt across various regions. That was the sentiment that people in Cali also shared on May 4, where significant internet disruptions coincided with social unrest and crackdowns on protests, and dozens of people were killed or injured.

The nuanced situation in Colombia stands in contrast to Cuba, where the government’s control over internet connections makes blocks and interventions more obvious (and easier). In 2021, for example, protesters and the general population faced internet and electricity cuts as a response to the protests that marked that year on the island. During the shutdown, the government responded with an aggressive crackdown in which over 5,000 people, including 120 journalists and activists, were arrested. Many of these protesters and activists remain behind bars.

Targeted and individual cuts to communication lines also take place against dissident voices. The strategy is not new;  the government has cut individual communication lines since the early 2000s, while internet service providers blame technical difficulties.

In Paraguay, the situation presents yet another dynamic. The Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay (CODEHUPY), a network of national NGOs focused on human rights violations, documented possible internet shutdowns in the highly militarized northern zone. Here, internet signal disruptions often precede government interventions. However, the fact that these rural areas already suffer from very low connectivity can mask the true extent of these shutdowns.

CODEHUPY’s human rights report highlighted various violations, including the use of internet shutdowns by the Task Force, particularly during security operations. These disruptions render entire areas invisible, cutting off communication and exacerbating the already severe issues of physical security and human rights violations in these regions.

In the case of Venezuela, its capacity for connectivity has been drained over the years by a variety of limitations. Local organisations like Espacio Público and Venezuela Inteligente document limitations to internet access. It is not always possible to determine whether such cuts are intentional or not, but they definitely contribute to the information desert that the Venezuelan government strengthens through other means of internet censorship, including website blocks.

Similarly to the Paraguayan case, technical limitations – that often also mean electricity cuts – make it complicated to determine a shutdown pattern. What is clear, however, is that the Venezuelan government’s efforts to limit access to information is systematic. From website blocks, to harassment against journalists and the press, to surveillance, it is clear that these censorship efforts are not only intentional, but structural and strategic.

Multifaceted responses

In this complex landscape, according to experts, the response also needs to be multi-faceted.

The situation in Colombia, particularly during the Cali protests, serves as a notable example. Amidst the confusion and lack of clear information about the internet disruptions, Colombian organisations like El Veinte, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), Karisma, and ISUR adopted a legal approach by filing a tutela – a mechanism designed for the immediate protection of fundamental rights against potential violations by authorities. This action aimed to compel the government to explain the situation and take preventative measures.

The rationale behind the legal action was that the government bore responsibility for ensuring internet access. While there was no definitive evidence that the government had deliberately cut off the internet, the argument was that their heightened presence in the region and the involvement of the army in controlling public order created an obligation to maintain internet access and proactively provide information on their activities.

Despite court decisions that went against them, twice, the case was eventually selected by the Colombian Constitutional Court. A year later, the court issued a decision that partially supported the arguments of the organisations. As none of them were in Cali, the judgment was that their freedom of expression was violated due to an inability to receive information, which impacted their work as civil society organisations. For instance, FLIP couldn’t receive real-time reports of journalists being attacked, and Karisma couldn’t monitor the situation effectively.

The Constitutional Court recognised that the internet interruption affected these rights, underscoring the collective dimension of freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive and seek information.

The fight against internet shutdowns demands a collaborative approach, bringing together individuals with diverse skills and expertise. Though there may be warning signs, it very difficult to predict with certainty when and where a government might cut off internet access. This uncertainty complicates advocacy efforts. Mitigating their effects is deeply dependent on acute observation and comprehension of the phenomenon, in the region and beyond.

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