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Scheming to Connect Cubans to the "Actual Internet"

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 19 2010

Google's recent threats to pull back from operations in China are putting much needed attention on the possibility that the "Internet" that hundreds of millions of Chinese people will come to know will actually be just a fork of the 'net. It's tempting to fall into the thinking that the Internet is something holistic, something that -- despite, sure, the attempts of governments to filter and shape it inside their borders -- kind of functions on a "yes" or "no" premise. Either you have Internet or you don't, goes the thinking, and if you do it's the same in Prague as it is in Pittsburgh.

But one look at how the Internet exists in Cuba gives lie to that assumption.

On Friday, academics, activists, government officials, business leaders, and others got together in New York City for the Cuba IT & Social Media Summit, an event sponsored by the Cuba Study Group. The goal was to accurately assess the current state of information networks in Cuba, which is itself no easy feat. Armed with that information, the hope of the crowd was to both plan for a more connected future. But there was an immediacy to the meeting too, and that was to figure out ways, today, to help Cubans get "online" in a way that would be more recognizable to those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who enjoy a nearly unfettered hook-up to the free and open global network -- or, as one participant put it beautifully, "the actual Internet."

The Cuba IT & Social Media Summit operated under the Chatham House Rule which means that while the gist of the conversation can be recorded and conveyed, the affiliations and identities of individual speakers can't. More on how Chatham House Rule works here. What follows here, then, are generalized (and lengthy!) notes on what was discussed.

Much attention has been paid in the last few years to the liberalization of IT policy both inside Cuba and in the U.S., as it relates to Cuba. When he came to power in 2008, Raul Castro dialed down restrictions on how Cubans can purchase and use personal computers, cell phones, and Internet access privileges, and Barack Obama issued an ordered to open up Cuba to American technologies.

But participants at the meeting argued that the impact of Castro and Obama's high-profile moves have been minimal in practice. When Obama's orders finished passing through the Treasury Department rulemaking process, participants said, they came out much weaker than anyone had expected. Castro's policy changes run into the economic realities of Cuban life. (Though both moves, participants suggested, had the effect of upping the number of mobile phones being used in Cuba. More on that below.) Home computers are beyond the reach of most Cubans, even on the black market, where PCs can go for about double the average Cuban yearly salary. Reporters Without Borders has found that, in a country where the average monthly salary is the equivilent of 13 euros, one hour of Internet access is about 4 euros. Far cheaper, though, is the national network.

Yes, the national network. Cuba has what amounts to a giant national intranet. The advocacy group Freedom House describes the Cuban network as containing "a national e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia, a pool of educational materials and open-access journals, Cuban websites, and foreign websites that are supportive of the Cuban government." Cuban Internet policy, such as it is, is designed to push as many Cubans as possible (with the exception of government officials and members of the professional class) onto this special Cubanized version of the Internet. In some ways, it's the Internet as it once ways, back before leadership inside and outside governments around the world managed to get a mishmash of stand-alone networks harmonized into the 'net.

(Freedom House gives Cuba a 90 on its scale of Internet freedom, with 0 representing free connectivity and 100 representing total restriction. By point of comparison, Iran gets a 74.)

But little is black and white about how the modern Internet exists within the boundaries of Cuba. Cuban bloggers, like bloggers everywhere, it seems, aren't about to allow to the official limitations and restrictions of an establishment authority kill their ability to communicate. On the more rudimentary end of the spectrum, Cubans make use of what's known colloquially as a "sneaker net." In other words, information that isn't readily accessible through a computer is put on some form of portable media, like a USB stick, CD, or DVD and simply walked around to whomever wants it. Equipping bloggers and other online activists with cheap USB keychains, then, becomes a way of helping to grow the Internets tendrils on the island. There's also a black market for email, where Cubans who do enjoy global e-mail accounts will take a small fee for sending out messages. Noted Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez reportedly relies on good ol' snail mail to get her blog published; she prints and mails her posts to friends outside Cuba, who then post them to the web.

There are more technical solutions. Participants in Friday's session called for their allies to get involved in bringing those solutions to pass.

Where Cubans can get online and get access to the real live global Internet, the narrow bore of their connection can effectively act as as censor. Bloggers participating in the meeting complained about "heavy pages," those sites full of images, videos, and Flash that can be enormously painful to load on slow Internet connections. One Cuban activist participating in the meeting called for allies in the U.S. and elsewhere to set up sites that would strip those heavy pages and convert them into "light pages" that can quickly load even on Cuban's pokey Internet connections. Another request made by Cuban bloggers is that their allies abroad work to get search engines to promote, for free, the blogs like Sánchez's Generación Y (Spanish, English) that the Cuban blogosphere is producing.

Ultimately, though, what Cuba seems to need most is better infrastructure.

One blogger involved in the meeting described the pain of attempting to download reports, that lifeblood of many of blogger, over Cuba's anemic communications networks. Slow tube mean that the basic functions of the Internet take on a different nature in Cuba than they do elsewhere. "You don't send an email to someone saying 'let's go to the movies,'" said one attendee. "It doesn't work that way. There's no guarantee that you'd get it in time." (Again, you'll hear similar stories about the early days of the Internet in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.) Mobile phone penetration has increased in recent years to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10%, but the mobile phones available in Cuba generally lack the capability to get online. (One blogger, though, argued that any mobile phone at all would better equip bloggers to reach their contacts.)

Infrastructure is the big ask, and a challenging one given the politics surrounding Cuba. "You can't set up fiber optic cable like you plug in a toaster," one participant put it colorfully. One map shown at the event illustrated the fiber-optic backbones running throughout the Carribean.Cuba is isolated in the current map, but there seemed to be hope at the meeting that the cable that runs close to the island's northwestern-most point could be pulled inland to provide connectivity. The current state of U.S. policy to Cuba, though, is a major obstacle in the way of any U.S.-based participant in wiring Cuba. Stepping into the breach, it seems, is Venezuela, which is partnering with Cuba to lay fiber-optic cable that both parties say will be operational this year. (Map credit: Columbus Communications)

Cuban bloggers participating in the meeting, though, argued that from their perspective what's needed is direct support from their allies around the world. Anything that governments (read, the U.S. government) might do to support them, they said, could make life very difficult for them in Cuba.