GOP and Biden pursue different internet strategies for Cuba
Republicans and President Joe Biden agree to expand internet access in Cuba, but have yet to decide how best to do it.
Since the widespread pro-democracy protests in Cuba on July 11 and the Cuban government’s response to block Internet access for many Cubans, US lawmakers and officials have come up with various strategies to expand Internet access. Another wave of civic action slated for November 15 has met with widespread repression and prompted more calls to action from lawmakers.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the most recent protests, which were smaller than the island-wide rallies in July amid continued harassment from the Cuban government, “created a new symbol powerful resistance ”for Cubans and people around the world.
Rubio said the technology to provide the Internet to Cubans exists, although it will be difficult to implement.
“It’s not easy, but it can be done, especially at the key times when we know the internet is going to be shut down,” Rubio said. “It’s a matter of will and desire.”
Congressional Republicans, led by Rubio, Florida Senator Rick Scott, and U.S. Representatives in Miami Carlos Gimenez, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Maria Elvira Salazar, continue to demand that the U.S. government provide the Internet to Cubans through balloons or from the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
“Administration is just words and no action,” said Salazar. “Turn on the internet, put your money where your mouth is. “
But Internet connectivity in Cuba was never “turned off” after the July protests. Instead, the government stepped up censorship, preventing many Cubans from disseminating information and planning protests.
How to extend access to the island
With the internet still functioning in Cuba, the Biden administration is instead trying to expand connectivity. Some members of Congress are hoping to give a government-affiliated nonprofit more money and flexibility to help bypass fast-acting Internet firewalls supported by Chinese and Russian technology that have emerged in countries like Cuba, Myanmar and Belarus over the past two years.
Since the July 11 protests, the Biden administration has conducted what a senior official called a “comprehensive” review of options to extend Internet connectivity to Cubans, bringing together experts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Council National Security Office, from the White House Office. of Science and Technology and the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the matter.
“The regime has not cut the Internet,” a senior administration official said on Monday. “He closed access to sites and limited bandwidth in specific areas where protests were known or perceived to limit Cubans’ ability to communicate with each other.”
Biden’s team decided to double down on a proposal put forward by the Cuba Internet Task Force created by former President Donald Trump – bolstering the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit that works to advance freedom. of the Internet in repressive environments around the world with the funding of new research and technologies.
“Giving [Cubans] these tools so that they can talk to each other is the most important thing we can do, and so we are looking to further extend our support for the Open Technology Fund and those kinds of censorship circumvention tools, ”he said. declared the responsible. “It’s basically the consensus view of what a policy prescription has an impact, and that’s what we’re looking at. We therefore ask the Open Technology Fund to further increase support for this type of technology. “
A potential open source solution
Sponsors of the Open Technology Fund Psiphon, a free open source Internet censorship circumvention tool that has been downloaded by over 150 million users. The bulk of the Open Technology Fund’s annual allocation of $ 2.5 million through the State Department of Congress goes to fighting internet censorship in countries like China, Russia and the Iran, where autocratic governments maintain complex and long-standing firewalls.
But in other countries like Cuba, governments quickly restricted Internet access in response to anti-government protests. The Open Technology Fund currently does not have a dedicated funding source for Congress for cases where Psiphon users increase due to internet usage restrictions which typically last a few weeks.
“During the July protest, Psiphon enabled more than 2.8 million users to connect to the internet uncensored, allowing them to share their stories on social media and messaging apps,” said the CEO by Psiphon, Michael Hull. “Unfortunately, these types of surges occur more frequently around the world and last longer, putting significant strain on resources.”
The administration considered using the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station on the island’s southeast coast as a potential base for tools that could expand access. They looked at congressional proposals to deploy stratospheric balloons with the potential to create hot spots and looked at the abilities of private companies to use lower orbiting satellites that would provide greater coverage.
The effectiveness of the balloons would depend on weather conditions and could otherwise be disrupted by “very modest technical capabilities,” the official said. The company that built Internet balloons used in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria closed earlier this year. And private companies with the right satellite networks would demand that the local government allow their use, which Havana never would.
“For technical or legal reasons, there is no simple or clear solution to the problem of wider Internet connectivity,” the official said. “The reality is that the provision of the Internet in conflict environments around the world is not at the level it could be.”
U.S. Democratic Representative Val Demings from Orlando, who is looking to run against Rubio next year, is working on legislation that would expand Congress’ ability to quickly fund tech like Psiphon, without the need to pass money through by the State Department which is usually not spent. During months.
“Congress and the administration should provide a global emergency funding mechanism that can be quickly and flexibly deployed to anti-censorship tools during emergency events,” Hull said. “This funding would get more servers up and running during sudden internet disruptions and help keep people online when they need it most.”
There is bipartite support for the expansion of government funding for the Open Technology Fund. Last year, Republican Representative of the United States from Texas, Michael McCaul drafted legislation this would place the fund under the wing of the US Agency for World Media, which broadcasts government-sponsored programs like TV Martí.
Republican US Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said the Open Technology Fund “has provided critical digital security support to Belarusian civil society groups” after a government crackdown in 2020.
But while the Open Technology Fund has received bipartisan support in the past, Republicans did not discuss the program at their press conference this week and were quick to criticize Biden, whose national security adviser published A declaration condemning Cuba’s crackdown on dissent. So far, Biden has not referred to the latest crackdown in public appearances, and Republicans have urged him to speak with Cuban-Americans in Miami.
“I’ll take a [Biden] visit to Miami, ”Central said Florida Republican Representative Michael Waltz. “Go down to Florida, go down and face the Cuban American people. ”
And Scott said Biden would be able to use the bullies pulpit to draw attention to Cuba if he so wished.
“If we had a president who cared about this it would be on television,” Scott said, adding that the administration had “done absolutely nothing” to help Cuban protesters.
This story was originally published November 17, 2021 5:49 pm.