22 de noviembre de 2015

Internet Governance in Venezuela: Are we moving forward?

I don't usually post texts in English on this blog, I opened a page on Medium for that purpose. However, the publication of this report, by the Internet Policy Observatory, which looks at the multistakeholder initiatives for Internet Governance in Latin America -and covers the ones in Venezuela- has led me to share it with the intention of clarifying some data. My essay (copied below)was delivered for publication before the Second Meeting on Internet Governance for Development and Social Transformation (an event organized by CANTV, Conatel, the Venezuelan chapter of ISOC, and Internauta Venezuela) took place in August 2015, so I didn't included it in the narrative. The IPO report dated on September 2015, however, it does not include -nor mention- what I find most interesting: in 2014 there was not just one, but two events. This year there was only one event, in which both the Venezuelan chapter of ISOC, as well as public entities were involved. If the multistakeholder model seeks to bring all actors to the table, does this mean that we are moving forward? That is an interesting question. What do you think about it?

In a politically polarized country, where the ruling party controls all the branches of Government, promoting mechanisms to enable Internet governance is a difficult but unavoidable challenge. Proof of this is what happened last year when two events that gave an initial look at this topic happened almost simultaneously. The first was sponsored by government bodies[1], and NGOs that promote the defense of digital rights were not invited; the second was organized by the Internet Society, and representatives of the public entities were absent[2].

When I was invited to speak at the latter one, I served as a representative of the academic sector whose role revolved around creating paths to promote a consensus about basic Internet governance in the country. This must be done in order to slow the decline that the telecommunications sector in general (UIT, 2014; WebIndex, 2014) [3], and freedom on the net, in particular, have experienced in at least the past four years. (Freedom House, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) [4].

The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, approved on December 1999, guarantees freedom of expression and establishes that universal access to information is a prerequisite for the economic, social, and political development of the country. Nonetheless, Congress put forward a set of government policies limiting these rights (such as the amendments to the 2010 Law of Telecommunications and Social Responsibility in Radio, TV and Electronic Media), contradicting the principles prescribed in the fundamental law.

Over the past decade, Venezuelan government went from promulgating Presidential Decree No. 825 in the year 2000, which declared the access and use of Internet a priority for the nation’s development, to the approval of Decree 6649[5] in 2009, which defines Internet as a luxury expenditure for all public institutions. Furthermore, in December 2010, the Telecommunications Law, as well as the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (which now includes electronic media)  were reformed to impose serious restrictions on the telecommunications and media sectors[6].

There is a clear governmental strategy to achieve hegemony over digital media.  The complex setup put in place to prevent free access to Internet includes the following components:
  • A legislative environment that favors the state-owned monopoly of the telecommunications sector.
  • Restriction of private investment via foreign currency exchange controls.
  • Low Internet penetration in rural areas.
  • High cost of equipment and Internet service rates.
  • The absence of an independent regulatory body.
In Venezuela, universal access to Internet, and therefore freedom on the net, has been constricted not only through arbitrary governmental measures; such as the blocking of websites, surveillance of communications, the censorship and harassment of journalists, and the imprisonment of cyber activists; but also through subtle, practically invisible methods such as the control over telecommunications infrastructure.

The latter has been achieved through two main mechanisms: the monopoly the main telecommunications operator (CANTV, an enterprise nationalized in 2007) has over the sector, and the restricted access to foreign currency, which private businesses need for their operations and investments. The state-owned company has prioritized expanding access rather than improving connection speeds. At the same time, private companies have focused their investments in areas that generate the most revenue. The landscape in Venezuela is clear: a country that is 60 percent connected, but with speeds higher than 4.0 Mbps only in economically profitable sectors..

Since at least 2010, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been reporting a decrease in the Venezuelan ICT Development Index. Although official government figures say that the Internet penetration rate is close to 60 percent[7], the average download speed is only around 2.0 Mbps[8], and according to Akamai[9], the average highest speed does not surpass 8.0 Mbps. Out of the three mobile phone operators, only one offers 4G connections in a limited number of locations. There are approximately 8 million smartphones in the country, but according to personal calculations of the data provided by Conatel and ITU, only 7 percent of these devices have broadband connections. Due to the new exchange control regulations established in February 2015 that limit private companies’ access to foreign currency needed to import technological goods, the situation is posed to worsen.

In contrast with the situation in Venezuela, discussions about net neutrality and the need to make Internet access a human right advance around the world, albeit not without obstacles. Similarly, the consensus that freedom on the net can only be achieved through plural and democratic governance continues to spread. At NETMundial, an event that took place in Brazil last year, World Wide Web creator, Tim Berners-Lee, highlighted a global inequality: 60 percent of the world’s population lacks Internet access. Democratizing communications encompasses significantly reducing the digital gap, which is indispensable to ensure the full participation of citizens in this century.

Agreeing on principles, rules, and processes for making the decisions that will define the evolution and use of the Internet is a duty for all sectors of society. We, academics and activists, have pointed out the absence of Venezuelan officials and the low participation of representatives from other sectors in the international events where these topics are debated and analyzed. Actively participating in the Internet Governance Forum will allow us to promote, with better arguments, the necessary multi-stakeholder dialogue within our country.

[1]          http://www.internetvenezuela.net.ve/ Accessed February 14, 2015
[2]          http://egi.org.ve/  Accessed February  14, 2015
[3]          ITU (2014) Measuring the Information Society Report. &  http://thewebindex.org/  Accessed February 12, 2015
[4]          I have authored the Venezuelan chapter of Freedom on the Net Report available at https://freedomhouse.org/ Accessed February 10, 2015
[5]          Both decrees can be accessed through the site of Internet Prioritaria  (Prioritary Internet), a campaign in defense of a free internet that we leaded with a team of researchers of Universidad de Los Andes. http://www.cecalc.ula.ve/internetprioritaria/ Accessed February 11, 2015
[6]          Relevant documentation can be found in my article From Knowledge Society to the Socialism of the 21st Century (In Spanish: De la sociedad del conocimiento al Socialismo del Siglo XXI ) available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/211889421/Comunicacion-163-164. Accessed February 13, 2015
[7]          Conatel (2014)  Figures from the Telecommunications Sector, Third Trimester 2014 http://www.conatel.gob.ve/informe-tercer-trimestre-2014/ Accessed February 09, 2015
[8]          Net Index Explorer http://explorer.netindex.com/maps?country=Venezuela Accessed February 08, 2015
[9]          Akamai (2013) The State of Internet. http://es.scribd.com/doc/202720160/Q3-2013-SOTI-Layout-final  Accessed February 13, 2015

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