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Fact Checking the Recent News About Google in Cuba

Larry Press

The Cuban Internet is constrained by the Cuban government and to a lesser extent the US government, not Google.

Google's Cuba project has been in the news lately. Mary Anastasia O'Grady wrote a Wall Street Journal article called "Google's Broken Promise to Cubans," criticising Google for being "wholly uninterested in the Cuban struggle for free speech" and assisting the Castro government.

The article begins by taking a shot at President Obama who "raved" about an impending Google-Cuba deal "to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island."

(The use of the word "raved" nearly caused me to dismiss the article and stop reading, but I forced myself to continue).

The next paragraph tells us "Google has become a supplier of resources to the regime so that Raúl Castro can run internet (sic) at faster speeds for his own purposes."

The article goes on to tell us that Brett Perlmutter of Google "boasted" that Google was "thrilled to partner" with a regime-owned museum, featuring a Castro-approved artist.

(Like "raved," the use of the word "boasted" seemed Trump-worthy, but I kept reading).

O'Grady also referred to a July 2015 Miami Herald report that Perlmutter had pitched a proposal to build an island-wide digital infrastructure that the Cuban government rejected.

Next came the buried lead — it turns out this article was precipitated by blocked Cuban access to the pro-democracy Web site Cubadecide.org.

Perlmutter tweeted that the site was blocked because of the US embargo on Cuba.

Well, that is enough. Let's do some fact checking.

President Obama's "raving:" It is true that President Obama made a number of (in retrospect) overly-optimistic predictions during his Cuba trip, but the use of the word "raving" and the obligatory shot at President Obama were clues that O'grady might not be impartial and objective.

Google as a supplier of resources: This presumably is a reference to Google's caching servers in Cuba. While these servers marginally speed access to Google applications like Gmail and YouTube, it is hard to see how that helps Raul Castro. It has been reported that Cuba agreed "not censor, surveil or interfere with the content stored" on Google's caching servers. Furthermore, Gmail is encrypted and YouTube is open to all comers — for and against the Cuban government.

Brett Perlmutter's boasting: about partnering with a Cuban artist's installation of a free WiFi hotspot. I agree that the WiFi hotspot at the studio of the Cuban artist Kcho is an over-publicized drop in the bucket — much ado about not much.

Google's rejected offer of an island-wide digital infrastructure: I have seen many, many (now I'm channeling Trump) references to this "offer," but have no idea what was offered. Google won't tell me and I've seen no documentation on the offer.

Google's blocking of Cubadecide.org: It is true that Google blocks access to Cubadecide.org. Furthermore, they block access from Cuba to all sites that are hosted on their infrastructure. Microsoft also blocks Cuban access to sites they host; however, Amazon and Rackspace do not. Cubadecide.org could solve their problem by moving their site to Amazon, Rackspace or a different hosting service that does not block Cuban access.

Perlmutter blames the embargo: I don't want to give Google a pass on this. The next question is "why does Amazon allow Cuban access and Google does not?" They are both subject to the same US laws. IBM is a more interesting case — they did not block access at first but changed their policy later.

There may be some reason for IBM and Google behaving differently than Amazon and Rackspace. I asked both IBM and Google for an explanation, but neither replied.

It should also be pointed out that the Cuban government also blocks access to some websites so they could counter a move by Cubadecide.org if they wished.

Before publishing this post, I wanted to confirm my understanding of the situation and I found something I cannot explain. It turns out that the Khan Academy, an educational site with both Spanish and English versions that I would love to see available in Cuba, uses both Amazon and Google as hosts.

When I accessed them from the US, I was directed to Amazon for the English site and Google for the Spanish site, but I got strange results from friends in Cuba. One told me he was unable to access either site from a government enterprise but was able to access both from a WiFi park. Another told me he was unable to access either from a university, the medical network, Mednet, or a WiFi park. I had them try the Amazon IP address I was directed to in the US (23.23.224.106), but that did not work in Cuba either.

Well, that remains a mystery, which maybe some reader in Cuba can clear up.

Well, those are the "facts" as I see them. The bottom line for me is that the Cuban government, not Google, is constraining the Cuban Internet. (I've talked about Cuban constraints in several earlier posts, for example, here and here). The US embargo and Trump's policy have also set the Cuban Internet back. That being said, I would like to know why Google feels compelled to block Cuban access when Amazon does not.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University. More blog posts from Larry Press can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Censorship, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

 
   

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