Cuba’s Dark Internet

Cuba’s internet remains one of the most restricted and censored in the world, according to the 2013 Freedom on the Net ranking, published this past week by Freedom House. The watchdog organization, dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world, has covered 60 nations in its third annual report, and Cuba received the worst available grade of “not free.” That compares with “free” grades for Argentina and the United States — while Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela were “partially free.”

In addition to technical or network restrictions on accessible content for Cubans, the 2013 survey cites crackdowns on bloggers and citizen journalists in late 2012, high prices, and extensive government regulation as major factors contributing to Cuba’s unenviable position (p.21, PDF).

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Hopes were high that freedom of ideas would spread in Cuba this year following the installation of a high-speed fiber optic cable from politically sympathetic Venezuela. Unfortunately, this did not lead to more access for Cubans, as it became clear that select government agencies and offices were the real beneficiaries of the upgrade. This means that most Cubans continue to be limited to the national intranet, which consists of an in-country e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia, and websites that tend to be supportive of the government.

Internet access in Cuba has traditionally been limited by both a lack of funding on the island and fear from the regime regarding the implications of a public with unbridled access to information and online networking. Access in the tightly controlled communist nation also remains expensive where available — four times the average salary.

Even if one does have the funds, Cuba’s surveillance and restrictions come with teeth. They have resulted in fines, confiscations of internet-connected equipment, and detentions of dissident bloggers.

Jose Azel, a Cuban exile and senior scholar with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami, laments that he doesn’t have reason to believe that there will be any meaningful changes in internet freedom in Cuba in the foreseeable future. He added bleakly that “control of information is an essential repression mechanism of the regime, and they are not going to give it up willingly.”

The survey also notes that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is blocked in Cuba, and extremely popular social media services like Facebook and Twitter are largely unavailable to the islanders. Ironically, Freedom House’s website is accessible in Cuba; however, slow connection speeds impede access to their website, which is typical for many foreign news outlets, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Le Monde, and El Nuevo Herald (a Miami-based, Spanish-language newspaper).

While this year’s survey lacks coverage for many countries in Latin America — including Chile, Peru, and Colombia — the study does highlight Argentina, perhaps unexpectedly, with a designation of “free.” Argentina is home to one of the largest populations of internet users within South America, and despite its fragile political environment, the study cites rapid growth of internet access since 2009 due to public policies aimed at improving both internet access and service.

Cuba’s oppressive restrictions on internet access follow a global trend of deteriorating internet freedom, underscored in the survey, but the report also highlights hope that due to internet freedom activists, greater awareness and attention is being brought to bear on the trend toward increasingly draconian laws and Cuban-style persecution of social-media users, bloggers, and citizen journalists. Azel of ICCAS added hopefully that while state control over internet in the island nation remains draconian, “dissidents are developing all sorts of ingenious approaches to disseminate information.”

Get the full report here (888 pages, PDF).

This article was originally published at The PanAm Post.

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