Venezuela temporarily blocks Wikipedia page that challenges Maduro’s legitimacy

Jan 17, 2019

By Global Voices staff

Wikipedia became inaccessible for most Venezuelans on January 12, following a high-stakes conflict over the legitimacy of two dueling political leaders: President Nicolás Maduro and the National Assembly President Juan Guaidó.

Venezuela National Assembly President Juan Guaidó

Reported by users and then confirmed by technical experts at Netblocks, the block was likely triggered by the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro. On January 11, Maduro began his second term as president, despite broad international condemnation of Venezuela’s 2018 presidential elections, in which popular opponents were banned from running.

Shortly thereafter, opposition politician and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó threw himself into the political spotlight when he publicly denounced the legitimacy of Maduro’s re-election and proposed to take on presidential powers on the basis of a constitutional statute and call for new elections.

In so doing, Guaidó effectively poured gasoline onto an already-blazing dumpster fire within Venezuela’s political crisis.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro

This triggered sharp responses in public and online, and a bitter “editing war” between Venezuelan Wikipedia contributors, who were at odds over the same question: Who is (or should be) the legitimate leader of the country?

In short order, Wikipedia became inaccessible on Venezuela’s most widely-used internet service provider (ISP), CANTV, which is effectively controlled by the government. By January 14, the site was back online.

What happened on Wikipedia?

On January 12, Twitter users reported they were unable to access Wikipedia using CANTV, the country’s predominant internet service provider (ISP), which is majority-owned by the Venezuelan government. Users noted that they were able to access Wikipedia using Movistar, a privately-owned ISP.

Technical evidence gathered by Netblocks, a non-profit group that runs technical tests for internet censorship, confirmed that the site was inaccessible via CANTV on January 12. Government-affiliated Twitter accounts have denied blocking Wikipedia, but no official statements have been issued on the matter.

Venezuelan authorities have blocked access to news and information websites in the country on many occasions. But blocking Wikipedia — the world’s largest open knowledge and multilingual information resource made mostly by volunteers — would take the practice to a new level.

Wikipedia’s unique structure played a key role in what led to the controversy. Unlike resources produced by professionalized experts, Wikipedia is built on the contributions of thousands of volunteers who write and update articles on the site. Volunteers have also built rigorous procedures for information verification and vetting, and works hard to prevent contributors from publishing inaccuracies.

When we contacted Jan Gerlach, a senior manager at the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s parent organization) for comment, he told us:

“The Wikimedia Foundation does not write, edit, or determine what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained – our volunteers do … contributions to the site must meet a series of volunteer-developed standards around neutrality and reliable sourcing.”

On January 11, Guaidó’s official title on his article page changed from “President of the National Assembly” to “President of the Republic” ten times in about two hours’ time. As their edits revealed, some Wikipedia contributors took an extreme view of Guaidó’s position, by actually referring to him as president. Others did not.

Guaidó has not declared himself the president, but rather has proposed that he temporarily assume the role until free and fair elections can take place.

Wikipedia swiftly moved to close the page for further edits, in an effort to quell the conflict and seek outside counsel on the matter. Wikipedia’s Venezuela team also tweeted an explanation of how the organization handles disputes at this level.

Soon, the entire website was inaccessible via CANTV. Despite technical evidence of what has happened, politically-fueled rumors about the block have spread rapidly. Numerous accounts claimed — with no evidence — that Wikipedia supported Guaidó’s presidency. At the same time, many of those who outwardly support Nicolás Maduro have falsely claimed that Wikipedia was blocking requests from CANTV subscribers, something that would strongly contradict the mission of the Wikimedia Foundation, which denied the claim.

“Wikipedia is not blocking any ISPs in Venezuela or elsewhere,” Gerlach told us. “We are still investigating the circumstances of this particular incident.”

Venezuelan social media scholar Iria Puyosa, who is a Global Voices contributor, sought to squash these rumors on Twitter, describing them as “disinformation”.

Ultimately, the Wikipedia dispute is just one manifestation of the broader conflict at play. Nicolás Maduro called Guaidó’s strategy a “Twitter coup” and a “Hollywood-esque show,” but that didn’t stop either the blocking of the world’s largest open information resource, or Guaidó’s arrest.

For now, the President of the National Assembly is free, and as of January 14, Wikipedia appears to be accessible once again in most parts of the country. But the episode sends a message about how authorities can react when the legitimacy of the presidency is called into a question.
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Credit: Global Voices, https://globalvoices.org

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