With protests erupting around Cuba on Sunday due to the country’s economic crisis, food shortages and the peak of 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 deployed repeatedly in recent years, an essential tool for repressive regimes seeking to quell the unrest made possible by the increasing balkanization of the internet.
The Cuban government did something like this before, disrupting access primarily to WhatsApp and Twitter during a wave of more localized protests in Havana last November. But he seems to have gone further this time. Reports indicate whereas Cuba suffered brief general Internet blackouts on Sunday; after the return of connectivity, not only Facebook and WhatsApp, but also Instagram, Signal and Telegram were difficult or impossible to access from the island. Most VPNs also appeared to be blocked. London-based internet monitoring company Netblocks said on Tuesday that the platform’s block was underway.
“Reports of arrests, attacks on the press and cuts to Internet access”, Pedro Vaca Villarreal, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights wrote on Sunday. “The state must guarantee the rights of peaceful assembly and expression by refraining from repressing and stigmatizing the demonstration.
The Cuban national telecommunications company Etecsa, which offers both high-speed mobile data and Cubacel, was founded in 1994. But the government has historically severely restricted who could have an Internet connection and only slowly started opening it up. access only in 2016. In 2019, the regime began to allow limited connections in private residences and businesses. The combination of full control and a burgeoning user base makes it relatively easy for the government to perform both widespread internet shutdowns and platform-specific blocking.
“Although in recent decades the internet has gained in importance in Cuba, it remains 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 policies. to the Latin American rights group Derechos Digitales. “But acts of blockade and censorship are hardly exclusive to the Cuban regime. Whenever we see protests, not just in Latin America, we expect reports of blockade and censorship.”
Unlike systems designed for full government control, namely the Great Chinese Firewall, Cuba naturally did not blacklist or block specific sites and services, largely because it did not had to do it.
“The current situation is important because Cuba has had, you might say, free internet accidentally,” Toker said. “There was a lot of surveillance but not as much censorship, because access was so limited.”
Etecsa has made no public statement about the block and has not returned a request for comment from WIRED.
“Beyond what is happening in the country, many of us have relatives sick with Covid in isolated areas and the only way we have is through the Internet,” said Twitter user Félix Ernesto. wrote in a call to telecoms on Tuesday. “Please put mobile data or give an answer. Many of us need this service.
Internet shutdowns, platform blocking, surveillance and censorship are not just the domain of countries that have had to invest in big infrastructure projects to assert digital control, like Russia and Iran. Countries like Myanmar and Venezuela have also resorted to similar measures in the face of protests and unrest, and were able to do so a little more easily because their digital infrastructure is more centralized. It is also increasingly common for platform blocking or total internet shutdowns to go on for days, weeks and even months without reprieve, like in Kashmir in 2019 and 2020.