On September 25 of last year, several Internet monitoring companies noticed something strange happening in Sudan. Shortly before 1 PM local time, Internet use in the country abruptly dropped to zero. Sudan was being rocked by violent protests calling for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to step down, and experts were all but certain that the government had effectively disconnected the country from the internet in order to interrupt protesters' access to social media.
Governments don't like protests. Which is why the Venezuelan government allegedly focused on shutting down a specific phone app protesters there have been using to communicate with each other. It's called Zello, and it lets people use their phones like walkie-talkies to get in touch over radio-like channels; there are no typical service costs, users are offered anonymity, and the government can't listen in on what they're saying.
The largest ISP in Venezuela blocked Zello last Thursday, and many believe it was at the request of the government. Zello developers immediately responded by creating updates that make the app harder to block.
“It’s been the No. 1 downloaded app for both Android and iOS in Venezuela," Zello CEO Bill Moore told VICE News. "The same is true in Ukraine, and the same was true last year in Turkey and Egypt." Venezuela, however, is the first government to have apparently attempted to block the app. When it happened, Zello received help from the tech community to isolate how it had been done, and to come up with a solution. There's now a PC version, an online version, and a Blackberry version. Zello is still waiting for Apple to approve the new iOS app. Understandably, Moore wouldn't tell us how exactly what has been done to the app to make it harder to block.
With Zello down, Venezuelans have been communicating using Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications, which allow users to communicate privately on a public network by changing their IP address to one located elsewhere in the world. Chinese citizens use VPNs to avoid China's internet censorship.
So why did Zello act so quickly to counter the blockage in Venezuela? “People have been killed [in these protests], and we’re proud that it’s effective and so popular with protesters," Moore said. "One of the features of the app is that it’s anonymous, so it's of course also used by criminals and bad guys. But we’re not going to work hard to keep them safe."