Can the United States “restore” the Internet in Cuba ?, Telecom News, ET Telecom

Washington: President Joe Biden’s suggestion that Washington bring full internet access to Cuba as a result of government restrictions could break new ground in digital rights, but face significant technical and geopolitical hurdles.

Biden’s statement follows calls from Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who said the United States should examine satellites, balloons and offshore hotspots to provide unfiltered connectivity to Cuba.

“They cut off access to the Internet. We are looking at whether we have the technological capacity to restore that access,” Biden told reporters Thursday.

Human rights activists have welcomed the idea of ​​giving Cubans unrestricted internet after the regime shut down many apps and services as it faced its biggest protests in memory.

But that wouldn’t be like flipping a switch, analysts say.

If an effort was made to bypass the state monopoly, “I don’t know if it would be quick or easy,” said Milton Mueller, a professor at Georgia Tech University and director of the Internet Governance Project.

“If the Cuban government cuts off access, there is no easily accessible way to connect with a balloon or drone.”

According to Gaspar Pisanu of digital rights group Access Now, Cuba has limited access to landline and mobile internet by cutting some apps like Facebook and Instagram, and used other methods to filter online content with Chinese-made technology. .

“They take away people’s ability to use mobile data by revoking their SIM cards, censoring hashtags, blocking messages on VPNs,” Pisanu said.

Sovereignty or human rights?

Democracy activists in authoritarian regimes have used a variety of techniques to circumvent the limitations of the Internet, including virtual private networks (VPNs), “mesh networks” connecting clusters of computers, and techniques to conceal their activities, but none have been used on a large scale.

Internet services via satellite, drones and balloons remain at an early stage and are often provided by official carriers.

But Havana would likely view any effort to bring an unfiltered internet as a violation of its sovereignty, according to human rights group Freedom House.

“The Cuban legal structure is not conducive to internet freedom, and the country lacks an independent judiciary that could counter government efforts to suppress independent online activities,” Freedom House said in its 2020 report. .

“The constitution is silent on the rights of citizens to access information” and Cuban law condemns the use of the Internet “towards the subversion and destabilization of sovereign nations,” Freedom House said.

Supporters of an open Internet for Cubans argue that freedom of expression and access to information are fundamental rights endorsed by the United Nations.

“The Internet is a fundamental human right in the digital age, as it is vital for work, public services, political expression and communications in general,” said Darrell West, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation .

“It’s a fair game for the United States to offer remote Internet service because Cuba is an authoritarian country and its government has shut down the service that was previously available to its citizens.”

Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, hailed calls from Biden and others, and argued that “the Cuban regime has abused the concept of sovereignty” to suppress its population.

Geopolitical considerations

Mueller said providing the Internet to Cubans “would be morally justifiable if you could do it technically” because of international principles supporting freedom of expression and association.

But he added that “this could be problematic given the history of the United States and Cuba,” including the invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the occupation of the island by the United States for decades. decades.

An alternative Internet plan “would strengthen the resistance of the Cuban government and give it an excuse to claim that this is some kind of imperialist action by the United States,” Mueller added.

Pisanu said his organization called on Cuba to restore connectivity completely, without promoting an alternative internet.

“We must continue to ask and demand that the Cuban government allow people to regain access to the Internet, this should be the key priority,” he said.

Anything that goes further, he said, “requires a broader analysis and geopolitical considerations.”

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