The Cuban blackout of social media reflects an alarming new normal

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With eruptions of protest around Cuba on Sunday due to the country’s economic crisis, food shortages and rising Covid-19 infection, the island nation’s ruling party responded by blocking access to Facebook, WhatsApp and other popular communication and social media platforms. It is a measure that authoritarian governments have been deployed several times in recent years, a tool for repressive regimes seeking to quell unrest has been made possible by the increasing balkanization of the internet.

The Cuban government has done something similar before, disrupting access primarily to WhatsApp and Twitter during a raid of localized protests in Havana last November. But this time it seems to have gone further. Reports to point out that Cuba suffered some brief, widespread, general internet outages on Sunday; after the connectivity returned, not only Facebook and WhatsApp but also Instagram, Signal and Telegram were either difficult or impossible to access from the island. Most VPNs it also seemed blocked. London-based Internet surveillance company Netblocks said on Tuesday that the blocking of the platform was under way.

“Reports on Arrests, Press Attacks and Internet Interruptions,” Pedro Vaca Villarreal, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights wrote on Sunday. “The state must guarantee the rights to peaceful assembly and expression by refraining from repression and stigmatization of protests.”

The Cuban national telecommunications company Etecsa, which offers both broadband and Cubacel mobile data, was founded in 1994. as limited which could have an internet connection and access began to slowly open only in 2016. In 2019, the regime for the first time began to allow limited connections in private houses and businesses. The combination of full control and a newly emerging user base makes it relatively easy for both the government to perform widespread Internet disconnection and platform-specific blocking.

“Although the Internet has been growing in Cuba for decades, it is still limited and expensive, with the government being able to control local infrastructure through its state-owned telecommunications company,” said Juan Carlos Lara, director of public policy at Latin American rights group Derechos Digitales. . “But blocking and censorship procedures are hardly exclusive to the Cuban regime. Every time we see protests, not just in Latin America, we wait for reports of blocking and censorship.”

Unlike systems designed for complete government control, namely Chinese Excellent firewall, Cuba of course did not blacklist or block certain sites and services, mainly because it did not have to.

“The current situation is significant because Cuba had, you might say, accidentally free internet,” Toker says. “There was a lot of surveillance, but not so much censorship, because access was so limited.”

Etecsa did not make any public statements about the blockade and did not return a request for comment from WIRED.

“Apart from what’s going on in the country, many of us have relatives who are sick with Covid in isolated areas and the only way we have it is through the internet,” Twitter user Félix Ernesto wrote in an appeal to telecom on Tuesday. “Enter mobile data or give an answer. Many of us need this service. ”

Internet disconnection, platform blocking, surveillance and censorship are not just the domains of countries that have had to invest in major infrastructure projects to establish digital control, such as Russia i Iran. Countries like Myanmar i Venezuela they also resorted to similar measures when faced with protests and riots, and they were able to do so somewhat more easily because their digital infrastructure was more centralized. It is also increasingly common for blocking the platform or completely shutting down the internet to drag on for days, weeks, and even months without delay, as in Kashmir during 2019 and 2020.



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