Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Cuba Needs a Free Internet

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

By , the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, and , a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy.
Cubans protest outside Havana’s capitol.
Cubans march in front of Havana’s capitol during a demonstration against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana, Cuba, on July 11. Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images

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 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.

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 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.

Regimes worried about their stability in the face of free online communication didn’t take any of this lying down. By one count, some 43 countries have seen 233 major internet blackouts since 2019. But the U.S. government became more active still.

When Iran again throttled its internet amid protests in 2019, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo implored Iranians to broadcast regime abuses via Telegram, an end-to-end encrypted service. By the end of November 2019, Pompeo claimed to have received 20,000 communications from inside Iran, with thousands more messages pouring in as dissent deepened. Today, as the Cuban regime blocks social media sites, Psiphon—a circumvention tool partially funded by the U.S. government—keeps almost 1.4 million Cubans online, some 20 percent of the island’s users. After Havana cut off access, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the Biden administration to explore satellite-based networks and balloon-supplied internet services in the event of another shutdown.

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. Decentralized networks distribute data among multiple, geographically dispersed machines, reducing the ability of authoritarian governments to control information and ways to access it. Mesh networks—peer-to-peer applications that use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi rather than the internet to connect devices—can maintain communications even amid a blackout. FireChat, one such mesh app, was used extensively during the recent Hong Kong and Russian demonstrations.

There will be more. Homomorphic encryption, for example, allows users to manipulate data without decrypting it, providing an extra layer of privacy protection against a government’s watchful eye. The U.S. intelligence community is supporting a pilot project to develop this technique.

It’s not enough simply to develop new technologies and cast them into the wild, waiting for activists and dissidents to deploy them for good. The U.S. government has sponsored training sessions and forums to exchange ideas in countries as disparate as Tunisia, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar. Efforts like these should expand and continue to incorporate cutting-edge communications tools as they mature.

The digital path is, we now know, not straight but crooked. The Arab Spring erupted in tech-fueled bouts of outrage that burned across multiple countries in 2011, and the combined power of digitally connected millions of people seemed to exert an inexorable force. Yet presaged by the severing of 80 million people from the internet, the peoples’ revolt in Egypt culminated in rule more repressive than the regime it replaced. Demonstrations in Syria and Libya helped ignite civil war. Yemen smolders, and even Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s one untrammeled democratic success, now risks autocracy’s return.

Technology can unite people, spread information, and boost popular solidarity. It can help topple a government. But a leaderless movement aiming only at dramatic political change cannot effectively govern. Technology has its limits. Online tools are increasingly key in ending tyranny but are not a substitute for it.

Dissidents will attempt to communicate with one another, organize marches, spread information about regime depravities, and enlist allies at home and abroad. Dictatorships will use online tools to seed propaganda and disinformation, confuse protesters, and surveil activists. When all else fails, repressive regimes will simply pull the plug, as Havana did on its population of nascent mobile internet users.

Democratic governments can help advance the cause of would-be democracies around the globe. So too can tech companies themselves by pledging to resist complicity in surveillance and shutdowns, putting greater transparency measures for repressive countries in place, and creating an industry-standard rule to deal with foreign government requests for data and surveillance technology.

Ultimately, it is the combination of continued technological development and a firm commitment to freedom by both governments and companies that can keep repressive regimes on their heels. In places like Cuba, popular demands for basic rights can be stifled for a time. But they will never be extinguished.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

Kara Frederick is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy and worked previously for Facebook and the Department of Defense. Twitter: @karaafrederick

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