Internet access is not the same thing as rice

Cuba’s Ministry of IT and Communications has framed the Internet policy discussion around two central ideas: Cuba’s commitment to social and material egalitarianism, and the government’s obligation to “protect” the nation from the potential harms of the Internet.

Providing Internet access to all Cubans is presently impossible—Cuba does not have the necessary capital to provide Internet access and hardware to all of its citizens, and, partially due to US embargo-related restrictions, it has been unable to obtain the necessary bandwidth for such a project.[1] But the need to “protect” Cuba’s citizens raises a more complex question.

Alongside those Cubans who have access to the global Internet, the government has found a way to offer others network access in limited doses. It has done this by building an “Intranet,” where Cubans can access several hundred nationally-based websites in the .cu domain, which is administrated by the government. This allows the Ministry to kill two birds with one stone—it can provide Cubans with some degree of access, without eating up much bandwidth, and can still maintain a good deal of control over the sites that Cubans on the Intranet can actually see. Government employees, as well as those affiliated with universities, medical research centers, and the tech industry have been able to use the Intranet and to build their own specialized Intranets, where they are able to access substantial lists of national and international sites that contain information pertaining to their area of study.

One reporter I spoke with there described the Intranet, this strange, less-than-half solution to the problem, by comparing it to rice—they allow people to use the Internet, she told me, according to necessity. Academics and professionals in high-skill jobs are given Internet access because it helps them to do their jobs better. Carpenters, on the other hand, are not given access, because their work doesn’t require it.

“It’s social distribution,” she said, referring to the process by which basic food and sundry rations are distributed in Cuba. “They want to dole out Internet access the way that they dole out rice….the problem, of course, is that Internet access is not the same thing as rice.” She paused and looked at me intently. “At some point, you have to ask: is this a form of information control?”


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