How does the digital blockade work in Cuba?

How does the digital blockade work in Cuba?

Published on 03 Nov 2023

Digital blackouts and personalized censorship coexist on the island

The cuts caused in the Internet connection as a means of political control or to prevent the dissemination of information outside the country’s borders, remain an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Cuba.

According to a report by the NGO Freedom House published in October 2022, Cuba is the country with the least Internet freedom in the American continent and the fourth worst in the world in the same category. Faced with this, citizens manage to evade censorship on a daily basis.

Personalized censorship: the day-to-day strategy

Independent journalists, human rights activists and opponents represent the sectors of Cuban civil society that suffer most from digital harassment, which translates into restrictions and suspensions of mobile data service and therefore access to the Internet.

Censorship is personalized and almost impossible to demonstrate and evade. Telecommunications are monopolized through a single entity (ETECSA), which in turn is controlled by the Communist Party. In addition, there is only one fiber optic cable (ALBA-1), which makes Cuba particularly vulnerable to these massive blackouts.

On significant dates, such as International Human Rights Day or during official visits of United Nations or European Union agencies, the suspension of mobile data service is customized and can last between 24 and 72 hours.

Digital blackouts: the response to protests

Access Now, an international organization that watches over the digital rights of users at risk around the world, included the Cuban regime in its report on Internet blackouts in 2022.

“Authorities continue to use internet blackouts as a response to protests, active conflicts, school exams, elections and political instability,” the report states. The main purpose of these outages is to hide human rights violations and dismantle civil protests.

“Internet outages are direct attacks on freedoms and rights,” says Angela Alarcon, Latin America and Caribbean campaigner at Access Now.

“If there is no accessible, open and secure internet, there is no freedom of the press. Cuba is an example of this. And if you block access to communication platforms, you also block the work of those who defend human rights.”

In 2021 Cuba was the only country in the region where the authorities cut internet to its citizens.

“Internet blackouts affect communication with sources and the ability to know or verify what is happening at that moment, as the Cuban regime cuts the service specifically when there are protests and mass arrests,” noted that same year Cynthia de la Cantera, journalist for YucaByte, a platform that monitors and records restrictions on internet access inside Cuba.

What have been the main digital blackouts in Cuba?

In 2021, two major massive blackouts were recorded on the island. The first in July, due to a local protest in Los Palacios, Pinar del Rio; and the second in September, due to protests across the Island in response to government management following the passage of Hurricane Ian through the west of the country.

Previous Access Now reports have alluded to the tense socio-political climate on the island and its relationship with Internet outages. In that sense, the organization referred to events that generated blackouts, such as the forced eviction of artists and activists barracked at the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement in Havana on November 26, 2020; the protests in front of the Ministry of Culture headquarters on November 27, 2020 and January 27, 2021; and the historic anti-government demonstrations on July 11, 2021.

In addition to these protest-driven outages, Cloudflare’s radar (an internet trends observatory that collaborated in the preparation of the report) detected a third outage in November 2022 originating from as yet unknown causes.

Cuba, along with the regimes of Bangladesh, India, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, are listed as digital rights violators.

How can the digital blockade be circumvented in Cuba?

The Cuban population, who want to stay informed, is forced to use VPN. The one regularly used by journalists and citizens in general is Psiphon. With this tool, it is possible to access the pages, sites and platforms of the independent press or those critical of the regime on the island.

Without the use of VPN, Cuban civil society would not have access to other information channels, mainly those where the content about Cuba is not related to the regime.

Tethering to other phone accounts – or buying phone lines in the name of third parties – is also another way in which civil society can evade the restrictions on mobile data service imposed arbitrarily, personalized and at will by the political police.

For more information on socio-political manipulation in social media you can follow us on all as @ProBoxVE.

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