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How free is the Internet in Cuba?

Time and again the international media reports about Internet censorship in Cuba. According to many US political institutes, the Internet in Cuba is highly unfree. In an index on the freedom of the Internet compiled by the neoliberal Freedom House Foundation, Cuba received 84 out of 100 points (where 0 is the best possible rating), an extremely poor report. The international media are in the same league; terms such as censorship, compartmentalisation and bullying characterise the terminology of the Cuban government’s Internet policy. But what about the freedom of the Internet on the socialist island?

“Free” in what sense?

If one wants to deal with the freedom of the Internet in a country, first of all the definition of “free” has to be clarified. Are we talking about “free” in the sense of available and affordable for everyone? Or of “free” in the sense of uncensored access to every page on the World Wide Web? If we start from the first mentioned definition, we have to partly agree with the critics. Although pricing has improved a lot in recent years, the Internet is still unaffordable for most Cubans at a cost of US$2 per hour. Apart from access at work and at university, the global network in Cuba remains a luxury product. However, pricing alone would not give Cuba such a bad record at Freedom House, most of the criticism goes further. This article will therefore examine the second definition of “free”: Free in the sense of uncensored.

According to current interpretations, Cuba’s political system is an authoritarian dictatorship that seeks to suppress oppositional opinions in digital form as well. The blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has been sharply criticizing the Cuban revolution since 2007 with her page “Generación Y” (and recently also with her own news website), is often cited as an example. In this context, Western media repeatedly point out that the government systematically suppresses bloggers, censors their websites and seals off the population from international media. These accusations weigh heavily, but to what extent is Internet censorship actually taking place in Cuba?

Which sites are blocked?

Systematic research was carried out as part of this article. Various opposition websites have been accessed in various places on the island. All connections were made via the WiFi network of the state-owned telephone company ETECSA, which is the most widely used public Internet access in Cuba. Despite the relatively high costs, many Cubans can be seen surfing the net via this route. In December 2015, samples were taken on different days in Havana, Matanzas and Nueva Gerona. Apart from the connection quality, which is not a criterion here, no temporal or regional deviations were found.

The results are revealing: while Yoani Sánchez’s website is blocked, virtually any other critical or opposition website can be accessed via the state WiFi network. Verified pages include those that can be accessed: Diario de Cuba, Cartasdesdecuba, Cubanet, Cafefuerte, Havana Times and the Spanish website of the opposition group “Damas de Blanco”. The newspapers Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, which are close to Cuban exile, were also available without restriction in Spanish and English, while Martí Noticias was closed. In addition, there were no difficulties whatsoever in retrieving international news in different languages. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as the websites of BBC, The New York Times, The Economist and El País were not blocked at any time during the investigation. Search results for government-critical content could also be accessed without problems, as could the Spanish version of Wikipedia. Even critical questions such as corruption in Cuba or rumors about the Castro family could be easily researched in Spanish – foreign websites dealing with these controversial topics were always available.

Nevertheless, there are some restrictions to be made. Since pornography is officially banned in Cuba, pornographic websites are generally not accessible from Cuba. Also the Internet operational readiness level of the private classified advertisement portal Revolico is closed. For some months now, the Cuban government has been operating its own classified advertising website, the magazine “Ofertas”, which is intended to compete with the unchecked offers on Revolico.

The digital blockade – made in USA

While the state seems to block only a few contents, there is another observation that can be made when surfing in Cuba, which raises some questions with regard to the USA. If you search from Cuba for products from US software manufacturers, the digital dimension of the economic blockade against the island quickly reveals itself. For example, if you try to download any driver from the official website of the chip manufacturer Intel, you will get the following message instead of the download:

“Your request has been denied because we have reason to believe that you are located in a country subject to US export restrictions. We apologize that we are unable to provide the software, services and technology download you have requested at this time. Intel Corporation is a U.S. company, and as such is subject to the U.S. Export Administration Regulations, and implementing U.S. rules as well as various regulations promulgated by the Department of Treasury regarding transactions with certain countries.”

Also when downloading the Java runtime required to run some programs, it says translated: “In accordance with US export regulations, we are not able to proceed with your request.” Instead of updates for the MacOS X operating system, the user in Cuba only receives a cryptic error message that also refers to US laws. Software from the United States is still not legally available in Cuba despite some relaxation of the blockade. State and private PC administrators therefore have no choice but to use pirated copies to keep their computers up to date. But even with free content, the US export regulations are noticeable in Cuba, which is why official manufacturer websites and program internal updates usually fail.

The detour via third-party websites and illegal downloads represents a considerable burden for the Cuban economy. Even if a company is equipped with current Windows PCs, due to the embargo the driver search on the net often resembles maneuvering through a minefield – around every corner a blockade could appear again, which is why one cannot reach one’s goal without certain tricks. In addition, Cuban users are completely excluded from online trading because PayPal is also blocked in Cuba – with reference to applicable US laws. Users on eBay are still not allowed to market Cuban products or deliver to Cuba. This also makes the purchase of digital content practically impossible, so that the purchase of pirated copies circulating in the country is often the only viable way to get the desired software. For the Cuban government, this has been the only way for years to show current series and films on TV, as there is no copyright in Cuba in the sense we know – partly because of the blockade.

The solution to the problem?

But what possibilities are there to circumvent the blockades? With the Firefox-based “Tor Browser”, which works via a proxy network, you can surf the net anonymously. During the Arab spring, the program gained a certain amount of popularity because most Internet filters can be bypassed with it. In Cuba, too, the program can be used to trick the government’s blacklist quite easily: both the opposition website 14ymedio and the Revolico classified ads portal can be accessed in this way without any problems, and the browser can be downloaded from the “normal network” without any problems. However, the censorship imposed by the USA makes things more difficult. Paypal can also not be used with the Tor browser. Although downloads of US software work, they are so slow due to the technical limitations of the browser that it is hardly worth the effort.

While the Cuban government is working to make the Internet more affordable and available (dozens of new WiFi hotspots were opened in the last quarter of 2015 alone), the United States is still putting heavy obstacles in the way of the island’s 21st century journey. The big US technology giants Google, Microsoft and Apple are currently only able to offer their services in Cuba under severe restrictions, while other manufacturers are completely excluded. Neither a MacBook can be updated from Cuba, nor can an official Intel driver be downloaded – the USA still makes it impossible for the growing number of Cuban Internet users to have a normal online experience with absurd laws. There can therefore be no question of “free Internet” in Cuba. Whether the digital network blockade of the USA was taken into account in the ranking of the “Freedom House” seems questionable. For the vast majority of Cuban Internet users, however, these restrictions are likely to outweigh the government’s own blacklists by far.