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The Long-Run Effect of Cuba’s Recent Internet-Augmented Protests

Neither tweets and Facebook video clips nor the repetition of tired slogans from Granma are likely to convince many Cubans to change their minds.

It’s now more than six weeks since the Cuban political protests and accompanying Internet service disruption. Will they lead to a long-run change in the Cuban Internet or the Cuban political situation?

Let’s start with the Cuban Internet. Many of the Internet changes during the protests have disappeared. Total daily traffic, the ratios of mobile to fixed traffic, and human to automated posts, and the proportion of blocked Signal sessions are about what they were before the protests.

But everything is not the same. Before the protests, tech-savvy Cubans had been using the Psiphon VPN service to access content the Cuban government blocked. In the ten days leading up to the protests, Psiphon averaged 17,285 unique daily users. During the protests, daily users peaked at 1.425 million on July 16, then began to taper off. However, it did not return to the pre-protest level. For the 13 days shown here, the average was 109,429 unique users per day, over six times the number during the runup to the protests.

Keith McManamen from Psiphon said that this kind of retention—5x-10x baseline—is typical of their experience in other nations and that Cuban usage intensity—bytes/unique user/day and sessions/user/day—has returned to pre-protest levels. Since Psyphon access is slow and Internet access is expensive in Cuba, roughly 90,000 new users must be motivated.

Speed measured at the University of Havana

Another Internet discontinuity is the existence and continued growth of a crowd-sourced archive of images and videos of the protests. There were 219 documented protests as of August 6, and today there are 281. This archive may inspire future discontent, or it may be used to identify and prosecute protest participants. Regardless, it will be available to historians and political scientists—either at its present URL or, if it’s deleted, on the Internet Archive. (As an aside, the first such historical protest archive that I know of contains all of the Usenet traffic during the protests against the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt, and it is still available online).

There is also speculation that the protests triggered or accelerated the new Internet regulation, announced on August 17th. The regulation treats online content as a potential security threat and bans “spreading fake news,” “slander that impacts the prestige of the country,” “inciting protests,” “promoting social indiscipline,” and undermining someone’s fame or self-esteem.” The government has also set up a Web site for citizens to report violations—crowd-sourcing 1984.

Cuba has had previous protests, but the prolonged, nationwide protests that began on July 11th were a product of mobile Internet access, which began rolling out in 2018. The protests led to the changes to the Internet mentioned above, but will the Internet be the cause of long-run political or social change?

I suspect not.

Cloudflare reports that during the last 30 days, 70% of Cuban traffic was from mobile phones and 30% from fixed desktops, as it was before the protests. Furthermore, the majority of the fixed traffic is from workplaces where access is controlled and easily surveilled. Therefore, most political traffic is to and from mobile phones, which means posts are short and divisive—government supporters are talking to and reinforcing the beliefs of other government supporters, and the same goes for the protesters. (There are many beneficial Internet applications in business, science, health care, education, entertainment, etc., but they generally depend upon the fixed Internet).

I don’t know what percent of Cubans support or oppose the government, but neither tweets and Facebook video clips nor the repetition of tired slogans from Granma are likely to convince many Cubans to change their minds. Reasoned, long-form argument on the fixed Internet might be a little more persuasive, but things like money, power, organization, demographics, negotiation and compromise and exogenous factors like climate change, COVID, or political and economic decisions made in China will determine Cuba’s political and economic future, not the mobile Internet.

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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