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July 29, 2021

Cuba Needs a Free Internet

The United States can play a key role in supporting online liberty.

By Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick

Cubans have enjoyed access to the mobile internet for just three years, when the government finally allowed the state telecom service to offer mobile access. But it didn’t take long for new connectivity to threaten the regime’s hold. On July 11, thousands of protesters filled streets across the island in stunning anti-government demonstrations. Drawing on Cuba’s 3G network, they organized at home and broadcast the movement abroad, complete with a new hashtag: #SOSCuba. Suddenly, it looked like putting communication tools in everyone’s hands might pose a real risk to autocratic control.

The regime saw the threat too. As the air filled with chants of “libertad” (or “freedom”), the internet suddenly went dark. When it came back on, the Cuban government was in full-censorship mode, blocking access to social media and messaging sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Signal, and Instagram. It kept web access turned off entirely in some areas and throttled data speeds in others. Yunior Garcia, a podcaster, told NPR the government’s move “keeps us disconnected, uninformed, and unable to participate in peacefully solving Cuba’s problems.” That’s a recipe the Cuban government has tried for a long time, heavily limiting internet access even at home. After the regime started relaxing some limitations in 2014 under economic and social demands, internet access doubled.

The online tug of war between dictator and dissident is nothing new. But the nature of that war is changing, and tomorrow’s digital battles will feature greater decentralization and fewer top-down approaches to aiding the democratic cause.

The current round of repression has eased since the protests’ height, but Cuba’s digital dilemma endures. Once thought to aid leaderless masses clamoring for change—think the Arab Spring or Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests—it’s now clear technology is a fickle friend, an ally to tyrants and would-be democrats alike. Authoritarian governments have long used technology to surveil and monitor their citizens, suppress dissent, and manipulate internal and external populations for strategic outcomes. Regimes use platforms to collect and fuse disparate datasets, extracting meaning and identifying patterns that help shore up internal control. Take the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which allows officials to parse data—such as blood type, height, travel details, and electricity use—to identify potential “troublemakers” among Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang. Or the CCP’s mandate for foreign travelers to the area to install an app on their smartphones that collects personal data like text messages and contacts and scans for “objectionable” content.

In light of these trends, the United States has a key role to play in shifting the balance toward freedom. And in fact, in recent years, the U.S. government has taken a more active role than is popularly appreciated. In 2009, as Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” took hold, the U.S. State Department persuaded company leaders to postpone a scheduled outage. That year, Congress passed the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act, authorizing funds to build proxy web servers, circumvention tools, and other technologies designed to evade Tehran’s censorship. In 2011, after the first proven government-initiated internet shutdowns, the U.S. 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, paying for initiatives like “internet in a suitcase” to allow activists to communicate despite internet blockages. Tor, an anonymizing app that allows for secure communications, was developed by the U.S. Navy and predates WhatsApp and Signal by years.

Read the full article from Foreign Policy.

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