Clicky

Foreign Policy

Cuba wants free web

Cubans have only had mobile internet access for three years when the government finally allowed the state telecommunications service to offer mobile access. But it wasn’t long before new connections threatened the regime’s influence. On July 11th, thousands of protesters filled the island’s streets in breathtaking anti-government demonstrations. They used Cuba’s 3G network, organized the movement at home and broadcast it abroad, complete with a new hashtag: #SOSCuba. Suddenly it looked like putting communication tools in everyone’s hands could pose a real risk to autocratic control.

The regime also saw the threat. As the air filled with chants of “Libertad” (or “Freedom”), the internet suddenly went dark. When it came back, the Cuban government was in full censorship mode, blocking access to social media and messaging sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Signal and Instagram. Web access has been completely disabled in some areas and data speed has been throttled in others. Yunior Garcia, a podcaster, told NPR the government’s move “keeps us separate, uninformed and unable to participate in the peaceful resolution of Cuba’s problems.” This is a recipe that the Cuban government has been trying for a long time that severely restricts Internet access even at home. After the regime began easing some restrictions due to economic and social demands in 2014, internet access doubled.

Cubans have only had mobile internet access for three years when the government finally allowed the state telecommunications service to offer mobile access. But it wasn’t long before new connections threatened the regime’s influence. On July 11th, thousands of protesters filled the island’s streets in breathtaking anti-government demonstrations. They used Cuba’s 3G network, organized the movement at home and broadcast it abroad, complete with a new hashtag: #SOSCuba. Suddenly it looked like putting communication tools in everyone’s hands could pose a real risk to autocratic control.

The regime also saw the threat. As the air filled with chants of “Libertad” (or “Freedom”), the internet suddenly went dark. When it surfaced again, the Cuban government was in full censorship mode, blocking access to social media and messaging sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Signal and Instagram. Web access has been completely disabled in some areas and data speed has been throttled in others. Yunior Garcia, a podcaster, told NPR the government’s move “keeps us separate, uninformed and unable to participate in the peaceful resolution of Cuba’s problems.” This is a recipe that the Cuban government has been trying for a long time and that severely restricts Internet access even at home. After the regime began easing some restrictions due to economic and social demands in 2014, internet access doubled.

The current round of repression has weakened since the peak of the protests, but Cuba’s digital dilemma persists. Once thought to help leaderless masses crying out for change – think the Arab Spring or the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine – it is now clear that technology is a capricious friend, an ally of tyrants and would-be democrats alike . Authoritarian governments have long used technology to oversee and monitor their citizens, suppress dissenting opinions, and manipulate internal and external populations for strategic outcomes. Regimes use platforms to collect and merge different sets of data, extract meanings, and identify patterns that help strengthen internal control. Take the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP )’s integrated joint operations platform, which enables officials to analyze data such as blood type, height, travel dates and power consumption to identify potential “troublemakers” among the Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang. Or the mandate of the KPC for foreign travelers to the region to install an app on their smartphones that collects personal data such as SMS and contacts and looks for “offensive” content.

In light of these trends, the United States has a key role to play in shifting the balance towards freedom. In fact, in recent years the US government has taken a more active role than is generally believed. In 2009, as the “Twitter Revolution” hit Iran, the US State Department convinced corporate leaders to postpone a planned outage. That year, Congress passed the Law on Victims of Iranian Censorship, which authorized means of building proxy web servers, circumvention tools, and other technologies to circumvent Tehran censorship. In 2011, after the first documented government-initiated Internet shutdowns, the State Department pledged to invest $ 70 million in circumvention and related technologies. By 2019, the department had spent more than $ 125 million funding projects to support its internet freedom agenda, and paid for initiatives like “Trunking the Internet,” so activists can communicate despite internet blockades. Tor, an anonymizing app that enables secure communication, was developed by the US Navy and is years older than WhatsApp and Signal.

Regimes, concerned about their stability in the face of free online communication, did not let any of this rest. According to one count, there have been 233 major internet blackouts in 43 countries since 2019. But the US government became even more active.

When Iran throttled its internet again in 2019 amid protests, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pleaded with Iranians to broadcast attacks by the regime via Telegram, an end-to-end encrypted service. By late November 2019, Pompeo claimed to have received 20,000 messages from inside Iran and thousands more messages were received as the differences deepened. Today with the Cuban regime blocking social media sites, Psiphon – a circumvention tool partially funded by the US government – keeps nearly 1.4 million Cubans online, about 20 percent of the island’s users. After Havana cut access, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Ron DeSantis urged the Biden government to investigate satellite networks and balloon Internet services in the event of a further shutdown.

The online tug-of-war between dictator and dissident is nothing new. But the nature of this war is changing, and tomorrow’s digital battles will feature more decentralization and fewer top-down approaches to supporting the democratic cause. Decentralized networks distribute data across multiple, geographically distributed machines, which limits the ability of authoritarian governments to control information and access options. Mesh networks – peer-to-peer applications that use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi instead of the Internet to connect devices – can keep communication going even in the event of a power failure. One such mesh app, FireChat, was used extensively during recent demonstrations in Hong Kong and Russia.

There will be more. For example, homomorphic encryption allows users to tamper with data without decrypting it, which provides additional privacy protection from the watchful eye of a government. The US secret service is supporting a pilot project to develop this technology.

It is not enough just to develop new technology and toss it into the wilderness and wait for activists and dissidents to finally use it. The US government has sponsored training courses and forums to share ideas in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Myanmar. Efforts like these should be scaled up and continue to incorporate cutting-edge communication tools as they mature.

As we know today, the digital path is not straight, but crooked. The Arab Spring erupted in technology-driven outrage that burned multiple countries in 2011, and the combined power of the digitally connected millions of people seemed to be exerting an unstoppable force. But the popular revolt in Egypt culminated in more repressive rule than the regime that replaced it, heralded by the disconnection of 80 million people from the Internet. Demonstrations in Syria and Libya helped spark civil war. Yemen is smoldering, and even Tunisia, the only unbridled democratic success of the Arab Spring, is now risking the return of the autocracy.

Technology can unite people, disseminate information and strengthen solidarity among the population. It can help overthrow a government. But a leaderless movement aiming only for dramatic political change cannot govern effectively. Technology has its limits. Online tools are becoming increasingly important in ending tyranny, but they are no substitute for it.

Dissidents will try to communicate with each other, organize marches, spread information about the depravity of the regime, and win allies at home and abroad. Dictatorships will use online tools to spread propaganda and disinformation, confuse protesters, and monitor activists. If all else fails, repressive regimes will simply pull the plug, as Havana has done with its population of emerging mobile internet users.

Democratic governments can help advance the cause of would-be democracies around the world. Technology companies can do that themselves by pledging to oppose complicity in surveillance and decommissioning, taking greater transparency measures for oppressive countries, and creating an industry rule for dealing with requests from foreign governments for data and surveillance technology.

Ultimately, it is the combination of continuous technological development and the firm commitment of governments and corporations to freedom that can keep repressive regimes on their heels. In places like Cuba, people’s demands for basic rights can be stifled for a while. But they will never go out.

Related Articles