Bit.ly, a link-shortening service frequently used on Twitter, has been blocked by Venezuelan internet service providers for more than two weeks. Today, Associated Press crack reporter Josh Goodman picks up the story to explain:
Cyber-activists say the crackdown goes to absurd lengths, even targeting Bitly, the popular site for shortening Web addresses to make it easier to send them as links via Twitter and other social media. For more than two weeks, access to the service has been partially censored by several Internet service providers in Venezuela, apparently because Bitly was being used to evade blocks put on currency-tracking websites.
The New York company says such restrictions have only previously been seen in China, which has one of the worst records for Internet freedom, and even then not for such an extended period. Opponents of Venezuela’s socialist government say the restrictions are designed to obscure reporting of the nation’s mounting economic woes.
You read that right, the providers must block all links to Bit.ly, one of the most heavily used tools on Twitter and one of the 4,000 websites most used on the entire Internet, according to Alexa.com.
The measure has drawn almost no public protest or concern, either within Venezuela or outside. The only complaints I’ve seen have been from dolartoday.com, which is the ostensible target of the censorship (and which immediately switched to goo.gl short links) and from the little-known geek website alt1040.com.
Most people I talk to say the Bitly situation is just incompetence or bad programming, most likely at state ISP Cantv. I hope so, but I worry that it’s not. Cantv is full of intel types. Cantv blocked all international web access during a brief political panic, after the 2008 referendum, while other ISPs still had access to the outside sites. Cantv may be practicing to set up some sort of great firewall and testing the waters, to see if they can gradually increase the temperature without scaring the frog.
The goal of the censorship is to keep Venezuelans from knowing the black market currency exchange rate — currently around 60 bolivars to the dollar, or about 90% weaker than the official exchange rate of 6.3 to the dollar. Now, let’s leave alone whether that element of censorship is reasonable, and just accept that it is. (It’s not! But that’s for another day.) So, you want people to not know that number, what can you do? You shut down the websites that carry that number regularly — done. So they go to Twitter and Facebook, among other places. You can’t shut down all of Twitter and Facebook, not yet anyway. That would be to raise the water temperature too fast, scaring the frog. So you demand that Twitter shut these illegal accounts. And if Dolar Today is using Bitly as its link shortener, hey, close down Bitly! Yes, Dolar Today will immediately move to Goo.gl, and its Facebook will go on as if nothing had happened, but there, the government has Done Something.
There are probably several reasons for the lack of protest. First, Internet service in Venezuela is always so spotty that when people can’t load a link, they are unlikely to see it as something surprising or unusual. At cyber cafes in Caracas in recent days, I have seen people click Facebook and Twitter links, arrive at a screen saying bit.ly could not be found, and simply close the windows without any further apparent concern. Second, for the more technically sophisticated, getting around bit.ly isn’t a huge task. You can usually figure out what the person is referring to and just find it yourself if you really want. And if you know your way around a browser (no longer something one can assume of an internet user) you can just change the link from bit.ly/xxxx to bitly.com/xxxx and get through. So neither the technical novices nor the geeks have much reason to raise a fuss.
Yes, this could go away like anything else and be forgotten. But it could also stay, and expand. The bureaucrats of a supposedly democratic state now know that they can censor a sizable chunk of the Internet and that just about no one will say anything.
This is the sort of action that, taken by any government, should draw universal, swift and severe condemnation. It’s like the first touch of the pickpocket, or the first big rise in temperature of the frog in the famous pot of water. I wish that the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other pro-freedom groups would speak up about this. There is no good reason why a country with generally democratic habits and history should rush into the habits of dictatorship. Venezuela has enough other traumas to overcome, why add censorship?
UPDATE: Notiven in comments says the the block started out cutting access to all web pages whose domain is .ly, for Lybia. If they fixed part of the problem but left the bit.ly block, that is bad news.