Google’s Broken Promise to Cubans
The Wall Street Journal By: Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Aug. 27 2017
During his March 2016 visit to Cuba, Barack Obama raved about an impending Google-Cuba deal “to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island.” Greater access, he predicted, would mean “more information [that] allows [the Cuban people] to have more of a voice.”
Eighteen months later Mr. Obama’s forecast looks worse than a hollow platitude. Google has become a supplier of resources to the regime so that Raúl Castro can run internet at faster speeds for his own purposes. Meanwhile the company appears to be wholly uninterested in the Cuban struggle for free speech, as the island democracy project “Cuba Decide” learned last month.
Google started out making big promises to Cubans. In a March 2016 blog post, Brett Perlmutter, “Cuba Lead” for Google Access, boasted that the company was “thrilled to partner” with a regime-owned museum, featuring a Castro-approved artist. “New technologies and improved internet access can . . . help harness a country’s creativity and ingenuity,” Mr. Perlmutter wrote without the slightest irony.
By then Google must have understood that the dictatorship had no interest in mass internet access. In July 2015 the Miami Herald reported that Mr. Perlmutter had visited Cuba and pitched a proposal to build an island-wide digital infrastructure. The government reportedly rejected the proposal and warned of internet imperialists seeking to “destroy the Revolution.”
In December 2016 Google sealed a deal with Castro’s monopoly telecom company (and internet service provider) Etecsa to put Google servers in Cuba. Google fired up those servers in April, emphasizing the improvement they bring to viewing video because they allow Google to store content locally. A fiber-optic cable from Venezuela has also increased internet speeds.
Access is another matter. The internet in Cuba remains tightly controlled and, according to the 2017 “Freedom in the World” report, the regime has “cracked down” on “diverse independent digital media” and often blocks “critical blogs and websites.”
The report noted some of the creative ways that Cubans get around Etecsa’s blocking, including the use of virtual private networks. But that doesn’t work when Google is blocking access.
Rosa María Payá is the daughter of the late award-winning Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá. He was killed, most likely by the regime, in a suspicious 2012 car crash. In 2015 Ms. Payá launched Cuba Decide, a project calling for a national plebiscite to ask Cubans if they want free elections and free speech. In the Miami Herald in March, Cuban-exile writer Jose Azel called the project “a strategic tool” to “spotlight . . . the people’s prerogative . . . to decide their form of government.”
Yet Cubans cannot access the Cuba Decide website, and Google is to blame.
On July 22 Ms. Payá tweeted “google joins censorship in Cuba,” along with the screenshot of the Google error message that Cubans get when they try to go to her website. I retweeted Ms. Payá’s tweet, noting “Google bows to Cuban censorship.”
Mr. Perlmutter’s response was not only condescending and arrogant. It was lazy. “id [sic] do more research,” he tweeted, accusing me of trafficking in “fake news,” and by extension slapping down Ms. Payá. “Definitely nothing to do w Google,” he wrote in a follow up tweet. “This type of error is generated by Chrome often when sites are blocked bc of US embargo.”
Mr. Perlmutter did not cite any provision of the U.S. embargo that requires the blocking of a nonprofit citizens’ initiative—because there is no such provision. On Wednesday a Google spokesperson told me “we can’t say for sure what’s causing the issue with that site but it isn’t something we’re doing on our end . . . If you want more details, I recommend you check with the ISP.”
By Friday the company was no longer blaming the ISP. Instead, Google told me—in a paradox that must be delicious for Castro—that it is Cuba Decide’s use of Google’s Project Shield that is causing the problem. The shield is offered at no charge for “news sites and free expression” against “distributed denial-of-service” attacks. When it is used, it triggers the use of Google’s App Engine even if Google is not the website’s host—which it isn’t in this case—and Cubans cannot access the site.
The company claims this is because of sanction restrictions, i.e., the embargo. But there is no reason to block a website that exists purely to promote freedom and civic participation. If Google wanted to advance the cause of free speech it could have reached out to Ms. Payá to find a solution rather than fire off a snotty tweet.
Google told me that Mr. Perlmutter’s Twitter comments “do not represent an official Google position.” It said they were made “before all the facts of the specific situation were known.” Talk about fake news.