The most telling tidbit of information from President Obama’s visit to Cuba thus far was this disclaimer sent in an email to reporters by Laura Haim, a White House correspondent for the French TV station Canal Plus: “Apologies all for the delay / wifi problems.”
Haim’s connectivity troubles aren’t a surprise at all in a country in which roughly five percent of people have access to the internet, according to Freedom House, a human rights nonprofit. But, judging from media coverage of Obama’s trip, those problems are about to disappear, because Silicon Valley is coming: “Google has a deal to start setting up more wifi and broadband access on the island,” Obama told ABC News.
Cuba has bad internet access by design, and Google coming to the country doesn’t necessarily mean the communist government there is going to change its decades-old policy of controlling people’s access to information. Google or not, the Cuban people will get full access to the internet only when the Cuban government decides that they should have it.
"As long as Cuban State Telecom Monopoly, ETECSA, remains the sole or even primary provider of internet in Cuba, companies like Google will be providing limited support in the expansion of internet," Jose Luis Martinez, a spokesperson for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba told me. "Any expansion will be solely on the Cuban government’s terms, including ongoing issues with regards to censorship and retaining tight political controls."
Obama and Google’s announcement—the company confirmed that it would be doing something in Cuba in a blog post published Monday—was long expected. Google’s involvement in Cuba has been rumored for months now and Obama has repeatedly said that the United States’s newly opened relationship with the island would be contingent on Raul Castro’s regime improving internet access for its people.
New connection options in the country aren't coming from American telecom companies but from Huawei, a Chinese company that human rights organizations are quick to point out has been complicit in government surveillance programs
But months of vague promises in the media have led to no specific plans from Obama, Castro, or Google. Google’s blog post, titled "Forward!", noted that Google just showed off Chromebooks and Cardboard VR, two products that are essentially useless without a strong, open internet connection. This demonstration used ETECSA connections, which is the government-run internet provider in Cuba.
Using ETECSA is a nightmare. It costs $2 per hour, service is spotty (as Haim learned), and connections are only available in a handful of public wifi zones, which are all outside and are all surveilled. Internet scarcity and expense in Cuba is a calculated move by the communist government, which has tried to isolate its population from the rest of the world. Instead, it has set up computer clubs for children and has an entire internal World of Warcraft intranet ecosystem and state-coded social networks that are not connected to the actual internet. It’s not a question of funding or technological know how, it’s simple control over the access to information.
The demonstration, according to Google, was “just a start, an important step that demonstrates what could be possible in the future.”
“These steps occur in parallel to initiatives by other American technology businesses that will redouble efforts to bring a variety of services to Cuba, including potentially wifi and broadband,” the blog post, written in Spanish, said. “We are also exploring additional possibilities to augment and improve internet access, but these are the first steps.”
"On the surface, that the government is going to work with Google sounds great"
Google’s involvement is exciting, but its early statements are not overly encouraging and are not fundamentally different from what Obama has said before. Google referred me to the blog post when I asked the company for comment.
Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that renewed relations between the US government and Cuba has led Castro to have a change of heart. A “fact sheet” emailed to reporters Monday noted that “regulatory changes by the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce are encouraging more engagement by US telecommunications and internet companies in Cuba to support better connectivity and access to information for the Cuban people,” something of a throwaway line in an extensive email about specific US-Cuba policy changes.
So far, those telecom changes have resulted in Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint racing to offer (expensive, slow) roaming for American travelers and no change for the Cuban people. New connection options in the country aren't coming from American telecom companies but from Huawei, a Chinese company that human rights organizations are quick to point out has been complicit in government surveillance programs around the world.
“On the surface, that the government is going to work with Google sounds great,” Michaelanne Dye, a researcher at Georgia Tech who recently published a paper about internet use in Cuba, told me. “But [the Cuban government] has always said they are interested in increasing internet access for citizens and it’s always been slow going.”
In speaking with activists, businesspeople, regular people on the street, and reading local Cuban media, it’s clear that the internet is still looked at as a tool of dissent by the Castro regime—the Cuban people have gotten wifi hotspots, yes, but they are prohibitively priced to the point where it’s not practical for anyone to use them except for making quick calls to relatives or friends overseas.
“I’m optimistic yet skeptical,” Dye said. “Historically, the Cuban government has wanted to control the speed at which things progress so I just can’t see it being fully open and unrestricted.”
Will Cuba get unfettered access to the internet? Yes, eventually. But it’s going to be on the Cuban government’s timescale, not Google’s or anyone else’s.