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The Cuban Internet in the Aftermath of the Anti-Government Protests

Before the protests, around 18 thousand Cubans used the Psiphon VPN per day. Now it’s holding steady at around 166 thousand per day.

In an earlier post, I looked at the use of the Internet by anti-government protesters last month and the government’s attempt to block them. Now, a few weeks later, let’s see how the Internet changed after my July 18 post.

The protesters used messaging and social media services, which the government tried to block, and posted images and videos of protests around the island. The following is a snapshot of an interactive, crowd-sourced map showing the locations of the demonstrations (200 on the 11th, 11 on the 12th, 5 on the 13th, and 3 on the 17th). There are now 219 documented protests and you can see images and videos by clicking on the locations.

The government began blocking access to websites, messaging and social media services the evening of the 11th. For example, in my previous post, I noted that OONI, an Internet monitoring organization, reported that the encrypted messaging service, Signal, was blocked at 2:41 AM UTC on July 12th but drilling down on OONI data, we see that the blocking is sporadic, not constant and that must frustrate and discourage users.

As shown here, OONI reported that Signal was heavily blocked during the days of the protests, but no tests were blocked on July 19-21 from the 13th through the 28th.

OONI test results are reported when someone runs a query using the OONI probe application. Some of the variations in results is probably due to tests being run from different locations since, for privacy protection, they do not geo-locate within a nation.

My biggest surprise while looking through OONI data was to discover that the Website of the anti-regime Cuban American National Foundation was accessible on July 26th at 19:24 UTC and July 27th at 15:43 UTC. Can anyone offer an explanation for that?

Cloudflare monitored the Cuban Internet during the protests and noted a marked shift from mobile to desktop traffic. As shown below, that shift has largely been reversed, but a visible inspection of the plots indicates that mobile traffic has not completely recovered to pre-protest levels.

There was also a sharp increase in the percent of traffic written by bots rather than humans during the protest and, as shown below, humans have more than recovered.

The Cuban government attributed the increase in the percent of automated traffic to the US government and Cuban mercenaries, but an analysis by Cazadores (hunters) of Fake News does not support that assertion. They downloaded and analyzed 1,048,576 tweets with the #SOSCuba hashtag that were posted between July 10 and 12, 2021. Only 4.84% were “pure” tweets, 83.68% were retweets, 8.55% were replies, and 2.83% were “other.” The study concluded that:

  • The contribution of bots and spam was insignificant relative to real, organic tweets from Cuban citizens on the island and supporters—human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and artists—in other nations.
  • The vast majority of the photos and videos that were disseminated on Twitter were authentic.
  • Ninety-three “highly suspicious” accounts published more than 144 tweets per day and generated 27,442 tweets, but that was only 2.66% of the total. (I looked at the most prolific, @RRetuiter, and it is apolitical random nonsense).

As shown below, the overall level of Cuban traffic peaked during the protests and has dropped back off, but it is still noticeably higher than before.

During the protest period, technically oriented Cubans used the Psiphon VPN service to circumvent blockage, and to my mind, the most interesting post-protest result is the rate of Psiphon VPN utilization, as shown below.

Before the protests, daily usage was consistently around 18 thousand unique users per day. (It was up to around 28 thousand on the first day of the protests). There were nearly 1.4 million users during the heaviest protest day, and it now appears to be holding steady at around 166 thousand. It seems that knowledge of the Psiphon VPN spread during the protest period, and people learned to use it. I wonder how many Cubans downloaded the client during the protests.

Subsequent to the protest, CyberGhost, a Romanian VPN service, offered a free account to any Cuban users. It would be interesting to see a Cuban speed comparison between Psiphon and CyberGhost.

The bottom line is that usage patterns have shifted toward pre-protest levels; more Cubans know about VPNs, and more people outside of Cuba are aware of the situation there.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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