As Cubans Protest, Government Cracks Down On Internet Access and Messaging Apps

As Cubans take to the streets to protest against the government's mishandling of the economy and coronavirus health crisis, the country's government is turning to censorship to crack down on dissent. According to NBC News, the government "has taken steps to block citizens' use of the encrypted chat apps WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram." They've also shut off the internet. According to a case study from Top10VPN, Cuba went offline for 32 hours, which affected 7 millions users and cost the country more than $13 million. NBC News reports: Widespread internet use in Cuba is still relatively new, and Cubans mostly reach the web through their smartphones. The country only has a single major internet provider, the national telecommunications company ETECSA. That means most Cubans have to rely on a single, centralized, government-affiliated hub, making government censorship substantially easier. NetBlocks, an internet monitoring nonprofit, said Monday that it had detected disruptions to multiple messaging apps through ETECSA's service. A number of messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, are all blocked in Cuba, said Arturo Filasto, the project lead at the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).

OONI, an international nonprofit, relies on volunteers around the world to install a program that probes for which types of internet use are being censored and how. Its data showed that ETECSA began blocking WhatsApp on Sunday night, then Signal and Telegram on Monday. All three were still blocked on Tuesday, Filasto said. "We have never seen instant messaging apps being blocked in the country," he said. "It's sort of unprecedented that we would see such a heavy crackdown on the internet in Cuba." Marianne Diaz Hernandez, a fellow at the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, said some Cubans have reported that their specific SIM cards for their phones have been rendered useless, keeping them offline. And some virtual private networks have themselves been blocked, she said. Two major VPNs, Tor and Psiphon, appear to still work. While Cuba has deployed various censorship techniques in the past, this is the first time they have all been deployed at the same time, Hernandez said. "Since they have had internet, this is the largest blackout in history," she said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wants Florida companies to provide internet connection to residents in Cuba. "What does the regime do when you start to see these images? They shut down the internet. They don't want the truth to be out, they don't want people to be able to communicate," said DeSantis during a roundtable with Republican lawmakers and members of the Cuban exile community in Miami. "And so one of the things I think we should be able to do with our private companies or with the United States is to provide some of that internet via satellite. We have companies on the Space Coast that launch these things," he added. DeSantis said he would make some calls to "see what are the options" to make it happen.