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Can Google Expand Cuba’s Censored Internet?

President Obama seems to think Google can help increase Internet access in a country that has not historically been interested in unfettered connectivity.

President Obama said in a TV interview Sunday that Google will expand Internet access in Cuba through “a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island”—a grand proclamation that coincides with the president’s historic trip. But Google’s announcement was a lot more modest, and the implication that the company will be some kind of messiah for a country all but bereft of Internet access is unrealistic.

What Google has in fact done is set up a partnership with a museum in Havana, in which products from Google such as Cardboard and Chromebooks—connected to Cuba’s internal Internet network operator—will be exhibited. “We are also exploring additional [ways] to increase and improve access to Internet possibilities, but these are the first steps,” Google said.

To be sure, any expansion of Internet infrastructure would be welcome. Cuba’s Internet is not only censored by the government but far too expensive for non-elites to access. In a country where the average income is $20 a month, users are charged $2 an hour to connect at one of the few public Wi-Fi hot spots.

As relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to thaw, American companies are finding a foothold in Cuban markets. The White House has already made it easier for tourists to visit Cuba, authorized American credit card usage there, and allowed cash remittances to the country, which should help spur the consumer economy.

But in the absence of open Internet access, many Cubans have to share information by passing around thumb drives and plugging them into old PCs, in a kind of “sneakernet.” Despite this, a nascent entrepreneurial culture is emerging.

Whether Google can make progress is this environment is another matter. Last year the Miami Herald reported that Google had given the Cuban regime a plan to expand Internet access but was not having success.

For its part, the Cuban government said in February that it would begin expanding Internet access through a residential broadband program. But even if this plan is rolled out as advertised, it is likely that the regime will want to stay in control. Content in Cuba is subject to censorship; just last month the government suspended a local gender-rights blog because it mentioned that the revolutionary regime sent gays to forced-labor camps in the 1960s.

(Read more: New York TimesMiami Herald, BBC, “Cuban Web Entrepreneur Endures a Murky Status”)

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