Where can you find some of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Western hemisphere? Just 90 miles from Key West. In Cuba, most people only get a kind of national Intranet: a state-run e-mail and friendly websites hosted in the .cu domain—all subject to review by the regime’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, of course.
But this spring, things started to change. Cuba linked up with two undersea fiber optic Internet cables. And the country’s state telecom, ETECSA, opened 118 cybercafes with access to the wider Internet. Today, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society released a new report on Cuba’s tentative steps.
Don’t get your hopes up that a digital revolution is underway. Nobody is allowed to get the new service at home. The focus is on “collective points of access,” as Cuba’s deputy communications minister Wilfredo Gonzalez Vidal put it recently in the Communist Party daily newspaper, Granma.
The new Berkman report points up another catch. At these cafes, connecting to the closed Cuban “Intranet” will only cost you 70 cents an hour. But if you want the global one, it will set you back $5. And don’t expect to feel very comfortable browsing. The report says Cubans are asked to show their national ID when signing up for Internet time—and some have been asked to sign agreements not to do anything online that might jeopardize “public security.”
Nations have increasingly learned how to shape and control their national Internets. Many use American-made technology for extensive filtering and surveillance (see “Regimes Use U.S. Tech to Censor Citizens, Study Finds”). Some are even building their own from scratch (see “Evidence Emerges that Iran is Building its Own Hidden Internet”). Cuba is showing that when everything is run by the state, it’s possible to allow digital expansion without providing much if any digital freedom.