Google has unveiled a tool meant to help fight press censorship around the world, testing it first in Venezuela, where journalists say they are battling a government bent on burying online stories that expose corruption and human rights abuses.
News junkies in Venezuela clicking on links to independent Web sites have been frustrated in recent years by messages on their screens saying the pages do not 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 country’s 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, a press freedom group in Venezuela, says that news Web sites critical of the government have been increasingly targeted since 2014.
A four-day test trying to access 53 Web sites hundreds of times each day in August found about half were blocked, researchers said.
Venezuela’s communications ministry did not respond to a request for comment 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 Web sites.
The once-wealthy oil nation is plummeting into a deepening political and economic crisis under two decades of socialist rule and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government has increasingly squeezed or shut down opposition media he often accuses of taking cues from the US 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.
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 about obstacles they confront disseminating their work.
Intra launched worldwide on Oct. 3 after a test run over several months in Venezuela.
Cohen, a former US diplomat who advised both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton on freedom of expression issues during their tenures as secretary of state, said he and his team of engineers saw an opportunity for its use around the world.
“We didn’t build Intra for Venezuela, but the insights came from our work with Venezuelan journalists,” Cohen said.
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, Jigsaw said.
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, a press freedom report by the Washington-based Freedom House said last year.
Domain name tampering and other high-tech tactics have been used to restrict access to Web sites 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,” El Pitazo news director Cesar Batiz said.
So far the new app has not caught on in large numbers with readers, Batiz said, although the site urges readers to download it with Twitter links of its stories, or through WhatsApp audio messages.
“While our Web site 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.”
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