14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 12 September 2016 — Experts who participated in the first day of the Cuba Internet Freedom Forum, a two-day conference in Miami starting on Monday, agreed on the importance of further progress in improving access to the World Wide Web on the island, highlighting the crucial crucial played by alternatives such as the Weekly Packet, and criticizing the high price of internet service for the majority of people. The event, organized by the US Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), was attended by over 300 people including about 100 specialists in various areas.
Opening the forum was John Lansing, director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US government agency responsible for Radio and TV Marti and the Voice of America.
Lansing referred to the impact increased communications and the use of networks is having on the island, and the turning point the country is now experiencing. The specialist noted the interest of the US Administration in promoting internet use on the island. With a documentary about the difficulties of accessing the internet in the country, the campaign #InternetParaTodos (Internet For Everyone) was launched, a effort of OCB to demand the right to free access and to promote the search for alternatives to increase connectivity.
The film presented different realities within the country, such as off-line connections, a system that permits the networking between 1,000 and 10,000 people to exchange information and files.
“Social Media and the Weekly Packet, that’s the game plan in Cuba,” said one of the participants in the documentary, referring to the ability of these tools to break down the official bias over information with these two tools, so far the most popular in a country where communications are controlled by the State.
One of the objectives of the campaign is the empowerment of citizens, for whom labels as #LoQuePasaEnMiBarrio (What Happens In My Neighborhood) and #InternetParaTodos (Internet for Everyone) were launched.
As part of the presentations, the researcher Anne Nelson from Columbia University, presented the report Cuba’s Digital Landscape, in which she outlined an overview on internet use on the island since 2008, when access to computers began to grow.
The specialist stressed the importance of the fact that it is China that has invested the most in the country’s communications infrastructure. “Whoever builds the basic communications infrastructure will influence its future,” said the academic, who said the United States should pay particular attention to this issue.
“Cuban infrastructure right now is like what the US had in 2006. In many places it is only 2G and in the most privileged the technology is 3G, so the speed is very slow and the cost for ordinary Cubans is prohibitive,” she said.
Nelson highlighted the role of US companies in the sector and the proposals that have been made with the aim of achieving open access to internet for Cubans. “We are living a turning point in the history of the Caribbean. We have to be part of that,” she said.
In another presentation by Mai Truong, director of the Freedom House program, censorship of the internet and its evolution was also analyzed.
Cuba is among the worst five countries in terms of internet censorship, despite a increase of 7 percentage points in access in the last five years. Truong said among the main obstacles for Cubans to access the internet is price; it costs about 10% of the average monthly salary for one hour at the government-enabled wifi zones, 2 CUC (about $2 US) an hour.
Another major obstacle is the government control over the content and the lack of regulations that protect freedom of expression in cyberspace.
One third of the world’s population lives in countries where internet freedom is restricted, and over the last five years it has worsened.
However, the Weekly Packet is an offline source that exposes islanders to the global reality as shown by its growing presence on mobile devices and personal computers.
“The Cuban government is at a crossroads between giving more Internet access to its citizens or control such access as does China,” Truong explained.
Truong gave the example of countries like Myanmar, which had a communications sector as depressed as Cuba’s is, but decided to lift the policy of censorship and has since made great strides in the area of communications.
The event was attended by the mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado. Speaking to 14ymedio he explained, “The meeting is a clear message of what we want for Cuba.”
According to Regalado, Cubans “do not want direct travel, but freedom of information.” The mayor explained that when refugees from the island come to the United States the first thing they look for is a cellphone to communicate. He said it is “curious” that some of these people after returning to the island “lose their dignity and their money.”
For the director of Radio and Television Martí, Mary (Malule) Gonzalez, the event has been a success. “All the guests from Cuba have come to us and the public has responded in an exceptional way.”