Renewed diplomacy still leaves Cubans stuck in a dial-up world

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Ellery Roberts Biddle: The feeling is “Oh, the Obama Administration is opening Cuba,” and so now Cubans will have access to internet, they’ll have all these freedoms they didn’t have before. That’s really not what’s happening.


Marco Werman: That’s Ellery Roberts Biddle, who directs the Global Voices Advocacy Project. She travels to Cuba frequently and says its government has done little to make getting online there easier.


Biddle: Dial-up is the status quo is most of the country still. And actually, funny thing, I was there in 2004, that was the first time I went for a long stretch, and I found it easier to use the internet then than in 2009.


Werman: Why is that?


Biddle: The regulations on access tend to fluctuate, and my best guess is that it has to do with how internet activity affects the image of Cuba, Cuban people, and the Cuban government outside of the country.


Werman: I guess if we kind of follow our stereotypes, a lot of us might think Cubans are getting online and trying to access free speech and talking about politics. In reality, what’s happening when most Cubans are online?


Biddle: It’s like anywhere else. Mostly people who are using the internet a lot are typically teenagers and people in their 20s, and there’s something that we’ve come to call the “Internet offline.” When you have a setup like this where there are some people who have global internet access and a lot who don’t, but they do have mobile phones or computers, one person will download new music, videos onto a USB stick and then share it with a friend or watch a video on a computer.


Werman: It’s like postdated surfing the net.


Biddle: Yeah. There’s even now what’s officially known as the “Paquete Semanal,” or the “Weekly Packet,” where there are some group of people preparing a bunch of data that they’ll stick on a USB stick and then sell it or share it.


Werman: Yeah, so kind of curated net content. What’s on those flash drives and USB drives?


Biddle: A lot of it is entertainment. When Netflix made their big announcement that they’re coming to Cuba, everybody sort of laughed because “We’ve seen House of Cards, it’s already made it over.”


Werman: Been there, done that.


Biddle: Yeah. If I’m a young professor at a university and I have global internet access, and a couple of my friends want to check their Facebook or send an email or look at a video, I’ll invite them to my office and they can come do it.


Werman: Yeah, so a lot of people diving into offices on the weekends in various places around Havana, trying to get fast and free internet.


Biddle: Sure.


Werman: Ellery, do you think this is all going to change radically the moment the embargo is lifted?


Biddle: No.


Werman: Really?


Biddle: Companies like Google have made trips to the island, and it appears that Google executives have met with Cuban government officials, so that’s very interesting. But it’s too soon to know what that could mean down the road. The government of Cuba would like to increase internet access for regular Cubans for sure. But it has been made quite clear that that change is going to be made with a bunch of regulations on how the internet is used and the top priority, officials have said, is national security. So that translates, for me, as digital surveillance, like in many, many other parts of the world, and maybe more control on content.


Werman: Ellery Roberts Biddle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Thank you very much.


Biddle: Thanks Marco.