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U.S. Politicians Debate How to Extend Internet Access in Cuba

Since widespread, pro-democracy protests in Cuba in July, and the Cuban government’s response to block Internet access to many Cubans, lawmakers and U.S. officials have proposed various strategies to expand Internet.

(TNS) — Republicans and President Joe Biden agree on expanding internet access in Cuba — but haven’t decided on the best way to do so.

Since widespread, pro-democracy protests in Cuba on July 11th, and the Cuban government’s response to block internet access to many Cubans, lawmakers and U.S. officials have proposed various strategies to expand internet access. Another wave of civic action planned for November 15th was met with widespread crackdowns and prompted more calls from lawmakers for action.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the most recent protests, which were smaller than island-wide gatherings in July amid continued harassment from the Cuban government, “created a powerful new symbol of resistance” for Cubans and people around the world.

Rubio said the technology to provide internet to Cubans exists, though it will be tough to implement.

“It’s not easy, but it can be done, especially in key moments in which we know the internet’s going to be shut down,” Rubio said. “It’s a matter of will and desire.”

Congressional Republicans, led by Rubio, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Miami U.S. Reps. Carlos Gimenez, Mario Diaz-Balart and Maria Elvira Salazar, are continuing to demand that the U.S. government provide internet to Cubans through balloons or from the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay.

“The administration is all talk and no action,” Salazar said. “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 ratcheted up censorship, preventing many Cubans from disseminating information and planning protests.

How to expand access on the island

With the internet still working in Cuba, the Biden administration is instead trying to expand connectivity. Some in Congress are hoping to give a government-affiliated nonprofit more money and flexibility to help circumvent fast-acting internet firewalls supported by Chinese and Russian technology that have popped up in countries like Cuba, Myanmar and Belarus within the last two years.

Since the July 11 protests, the Biden administration has conducted what one senior official characterized as a “fulsome” review of options to expand internet connectivity to Cubans, gathering experts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Security Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology and the Federal Communications Commission to study the matter.

“The regime has not been shutting off the internet,” a senior administration official said Monday. “It has been shutting access to sites and throttling bandwidth in specific areas where protests have been known or been seen to limit the ability of Cubans to communicate with each other.”

Biden’s team has 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 internet freedom in repressive environments around the world with the funding of new research and technologies.

“Giving [Cubans] those tools so they can talk to each other is the most important thing that we can do, and so we’re looking to further expand our support for the Open Technology Fund and those sorts of censorship circumvention tools,” the official said. “That is essentially the consensus view of what is an impactful policy prescription, and that’s where we’re leaning in. So we’re asking the Open Technology Fund to increase further assistance to those sorts of technologies.”

A potential open-source solution

The Open Technology Fund sponsors Psiphon, a free open-source internet censorship circumvention tool that has been downloaded by more than 150 million users. Most of the Open Technology Fund’s $2.5 million yearly allocation through the State Department from Congress goes toward fighting internet censorship in countries like China, Russia and Iran where autocratic governments maintain long-standing and complicated firewalls.

But in other countries like Cuba, governments have restricted internet access quickly in response to anti-government protests. The Open Technology Fund does not currently have a dedicated congressional funding source for instances where Psiphon users spike due to restrictions on internet use that typically last a matter of weeks.

“During the protest in July, Psiphon enabled over 2.8 million users to connect to the uncensored internet, allowing them to share their stories on social media and messaging apps,” Psiphon CEO Michael Hull said. “Unfortunately, these types of surges are occurring more frequently globally and are lasting longer, which creates a significant resource strain.”

The administration looked at using Naval Station Guantánamo Bay on the southeast coast of the island as a potential base for tools that could expand access. They considered congressional proposals to deploy stratospheric balloons that could create hot spots, and examined private company capabilities to use lower orbit satellites that would provide greater coverage.

The effectiveness of the balloons would rely on weather, and could otherwise be disrupted by “very menial technical capabilities,” the official said. The company that built internet balloons used in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria shut down early this year. And private companies with the right satellite arrays would require the local government to authorize their use, something Havana would never do.

“For technical or legal reasons, there is not an easy or a clear solution to the issue of broader internet connectivity,” the official said. “The reality is that the provision of internet in adversarial environments around the world is not something that is at the level it could be.”

Looking for funding

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando, who is seeking to run against Rubio next year, is working on legislation that would expand Congress’ ability to fund technologies like Psiphon quickly, without needing to route money through the State Department that is typically not spent for months.

“Congress and the administration should provide a global surge funding mechanism that can be deployed quickly and flexibly to anti-censorship tools during surge events,” Hull said. “This funding would allow for more servers to be made operational during sudden internet disruptions and help keep people online when they need the internet the most.”

Expanding government funding for the Open Technology Fund has bipartisan support. Last year, Texas Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul authored legislation that would put the fund under the wing of the U. S Agency for Global Media, which broadcasts government-sponsored programming like TV Martí.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said the Open Technology Fund “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 didn’t bring up the program during their press conference this week and were quick to criticize Biden, whose national security adviser released a statement condemning Cuba’s crackdown on dissent. So far, Biden has not referenced the latest crackdown in public appearances, and Republicans urged him to speak with Cuban Americans in Miami.

“I’ll take a [Biden] visit to Miami,” said Central Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz. “Come down to Florida, come down and face the Cuban-American people.”

And Scott said Biden would be able to use the bully pulpit to draw attention to Cuba if he wanted to.

“If we had a president who cared about this, it would be on television,” Scott said, adding that the administration has done “absolutely nothing” to help Cuban protesters.

© 2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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