Plans to expand Internet access in Cuba prompt censorship warnings

Service providers should not be ordered to limit free speech, say civil liberties groups.

Democracy activists are urging the Obama administration and industry leaders to prevent Cuba from restricting Internet access, as the United States moves ahead with plans to offer expanded telecommunications services in that country. But the administration says it is too early -- and could be legally difficult -- to broker preconditions barring Cuba from suppressing political dissent on the Internet.

U.S. "companies can make all kinds of decisions now to protect users' access. But the most powerful lever here is the Obama government," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Administration officials have said they are waiting to see how the Cuban government and its citizens respond to the telecommunications policies President Obama announced April 13, before engaging in further dialogue.

State Department officials on Friday said they want to help increase the free flow of information among Cubans and between their country and the rest of the world, noting that the policies would help do exactly that. The United States has not been able to make demands on countries such as China to stop controlling use of the Internet, officials added.

"The difference [with Cuba] is we're opening up a new market," Harris said. "We're taking down a long-standing policy partly predicated on Cuba changing its human rights policies," she said, referring to Obama's weekend overtures to Cuban President Raul Castro.

On April 13, Obama directed agencies to permit U.S. network providers to expand cable and satellite infrastructures -- and license U.S. service providers to establish roaming service agreements with Cuban telecommunications firms.

AT&T and Sprint declined to comment on whether they would seek provisos that would forbid Cuba from ordering providers to censor Web sites or disclose the identities of government critics. Verizon, another leading provider of communications services, did not respond to requests for comment.

"This question needs to be on the radar at the State Department as well as the companies. Nothing would damage this important initiative more than a report that a U.S. telecom provider, under Cuban demand, had taken down political content or cooperated in the identification of an online dissident," Harris wrote in an April 16 blog entry. "If Cuba wants to build its communications infrastructure, the U.S. needs to set the terms."

A March 30 study on Internet freedom throughout the world by human rights organization Freedom House ranked Cuba last, mostly due to near-complete denial of access.

"You can basically count on two hands the amount of Internet access in the country," said Robert Guerra, project director of Freedom House's global Internet freedom initiative.

Instead of directly blocking or filtering online content, the Cuban government bars access to the technologies required to see the content with exorbitant prices and slow connection speeds, he added.

In 2008, 11.8 percent of the population had access to the Internet or Cuban intranet, according to the study.

While Cubans can connect to the Internet legally, "the few public Internet access points are priced in such a way that makes it prohibitively expensive for anyone to use it there," Guerra said. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month. The price of a computer is at least $600, with connectivity costing between $9 and $15 an hour, the study reported.

Cubans must log on through government-approved institutions or access points managed by ETECSA, the state-controlled telecommunications company, the study added.

"The reality is that there are no Internet service providers in Cuba," Guerra said.

Even if the United States cannot gain assurance that Cuba will protect online freedoms, Cubans will find ways to circumvent restrictions, said Eddan Katz, the international affairs director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties group.

Cubans already have begun to construct their own antennas, use illegal dial-up connections and create blogs on foreign platforms, according to the Freedom House study.

"That has a lot more to do with the people's willingness to speak out more than any technological regulations," Katz said.

To be sure, "going after bloggers for speaking politically and jailing them and engaging in that kind of intimidation is a terrible practice that governments should be held accountable for," but it will not prevent Cubans from airing their opinions on the Web, Katz said.

But the U.S. government might not be the best advocate for freedom on the Internet, he added. "My only reason for hesitation in saying the government will push [for unfettered access] is that there are forces within the U.S. that are monitoring" usage today, Katz said, referring to allegations that the National Security Agency recently overstepped legal boundaries by intercepting Americans' personal e-mails.