On Saturday, August 10, 2019 more than a hundred S-Net users gathered outside the Ministry of Communications of what 14ymedio described as "SNet (Street Network), the largest wifi network in Cuba."
In a prior CubaBrief the phrase "the devil is in the details" was used to discuss economic sanctions and trade with with Castro regime. It should also be applied when discussing the expansion of the internet in Cuba.
On May 29, 2019 both official and independent publications on the island reported that on July 29, 2019 the Cuban government would recognize private, informal networks and legalize them. Reuters reported that Cuba announced that "it would legalize private Wi-Fi networks to access the internet and connect computers," based on resolutions (98/2019 and 99/2019) issued by the regime's Ministry of Communication
What has happened is the opposite of what was reported in May. "S-Net", a domestic, non-hierarchical, self organizing and self configuring private network that covers all of Havana and is also found in the country side has been declared illegal.The two resolutions issued by the Cuban dictatorship's Ministry of Communication in May 2019 that were interpreted positively by the international press are being used to target this mesh network. Now what had been long tolerated is being shut down.
In addition, Article 68 of Decree-Law 370/2019 issued on July 4, 2019 prohibits "f) hosting a site on servers located in a foreign country, other than as a mirror or replica of the main site on servers located in national territory” and “i) to disseminate, through public networks of data transmission, information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people.” This can be easily used to censor on-line platforms with political views that do not advance communism in Cuba, and has also come under criticism in Cuba.
The Cuban government is shifting tactics for controlling information. For a long time it simply barred internet access on the island, but now it has decided to follow the Chinese model: expand internet access, while systematically controlling and censoring it. The regime is playing a little catch up and had been caught off its game with protests that were mobilized through social networks earlier this year. This also presents an opportunity to further systematically monitor Cubans on a mass scale, and would be a modernizing tool for totalitarianism as it is now in China.
The tactics changed but the objective remains the same. The Castro regime continues its six decade effort to block access to the free and uncensored flow of information. The dictatorship began by targeting and shutting down independent newspapers, radio and television stations in 1959 and sixty years later it is doing the same with the internet.
Antonio García Martínez of Ideas at WIRED and author of 'Chaos Monkeys' had reported in 2017 on the burgeoning internet scene in Cuba gives a more somber assessment now in 2019, "Information may want to be free, but dictatorships have other plans."
Freedom of expression whether with paper or electrons continues to be a cat and mouse game in Cuba.
14ymedio, August 10, 2019
More than a Hundred SNet Users Protest in front of the Communications Ministry
Dozens of people met near the Ministry of Communications to protest a new rule that outlaws SNET. (14ymedio)
14ymedio, Havana, August 10, 2019 — On Saturday morning more than a hundred people met in a park in front of the Communications Ministry to peacefully protest new legislation on wireless networks that they believe will prevent operations of SNet (Street Network), the largest wifi network in Cuba.
“I’m in the park. We are waiting for more people to gradually join our just cause. #YoSoySnet,” tweeted Ernesto de Armas, one of the users who answered the call, keeping vigil until after SNet administrators had met with representatives from the Ministry of Communications (Mincom).
Plainclothes agents from State Security were also in the park along with officials from the National Revolutionary Police. But as of roughly 10:00 AM they had not made any attempt to engage with or evict demonstrators from the site, located near the Plaza of the Revolution.
Around 11:00 AM several SNet administrators announced to the demonstrators that the protests were ending and asked that they wait until Monday “to give Mincom an opportunity.” The request was based on the recently discussed possibility that authorities would begin “working together” with the independent network.
Several protesters said they would return to the park on Monday if the promise to keep SNet alive was not fulfilled or if it had only been a distraction to end the demonstration. “We will come back again and again until they listen us and let us exist,” warned a young man with more than eight years’ experience on the network.
This differed from a statement published on Friday morning on the network’s Facebook page after at a meeting between SNet representatives and Mincom executives. Among those present were the deputy director of communications, David Wong, the director of public relations, Noraimis Ramos, and three representatives of the Computer and Electronics Youth Club (JCCE).
The network’s administrators were not allowed to ask questions during the meeting because, according to Wong, it was strictly an information session. The official communicated the official response to the SNetrequest for a special operating license, saying that “no changes will be made in the regulations and no concessions or extensions of any kind will be made in their application.”
Network administrators are seeking an agreement that would allow them to continue operating. The new legislation limits wireless antennas outside homes to 100 milliwatts (mW) or 20 dbm, a capacity well below what it allows for Mikrotik, Bullet or NanoStation devices that make up the wireless network, which has more than 40,000 users.
“None of the proposals submitted [by members of SNet] that involve a change to the regulations were considered.” Rather than approving their requests, the Ministry of Communications granted these powers to the JCCE, enabling it establish wifi hotspots and extend its network “to the public to the extent the national economy allows,” said Wong.
SNet representatives have offered several proposals, among them a contract with ETECSA that would allow the state-owned telecommunications monopoly to extend wireless internet to all of areas of Havana where SNet operates. This option would have multiplied ETECSA’s current coverage, making it dozens of times larger.
For weeks SNet administrators had been asking for a meeting to request a special license that would have allowed them to operate at a capacity higher than that allowed by the new regulation. The law legalizes previously non-sanctioned internet connections but establishes strict limits on the capacity of antennas and devices that act as wireless stations.
After the meeting on Thursday the nodes that make up SNet “should no longer be operational or warning letters will be sent to the administrators responsible,” reads the note, adding that the network must “disappear and be permanently eliminated without exceptions.”
For its part, the Youth Club may not “enter into any agreement, union, annexation or cooperation with SNet or any other node.” Over the next few days the club will launch a pilot program to set up an internet hotspot for those living near Manila Park. Users may bring their laptops to the park to connect and use the few services provided by the club at an hourly rate that will be announced after the tests have been completed.
Administrators complained that Wong “abruptly left the meeting,” which he attended for only 30 minutes. Before leaving, one of the options he offered was to allow “the Youth Club to lease SNet infrastructure, or at least the main links that require greater capacity, or to somehow allow the club to adopt it as part of the club’s equipment inventory.”
The official did acknowledge that JCCE’s current ability to provide wifi connectivity to the public “is practical nil.” Upon leaving, he put the club’s representatives in charge of coordinating and conducting the preliminary tests at Manila Park.
“The response and the attitude of these representatives were truly disappointing and offensive, and completely at odds with what Wong indicated,” the note adds. The wireless signal that JCCE will provide allows the user to access only their services, which are very limited and have a strong ideological slant similar to the audiovisual content compendium Mi Mochila and the EcuRed encyclopedia.*
“It was obvious what would happen. They were just humoring [SNet administrators] in order to buy time,” tweeted a user identified as Leo. “What we must do now is keep a low profile and evolve… What’sthe point of all the rules against talking about politics [which is the main topic on SNet] if those who dictate policy turn their back on them?”
The JCCE platform does not include social media platforms for customers who cannot afford high internet prices, an option offered by SNet. Nor does it have a platform for DOTA, one of the most popular video games in Cuba, nor for other such entertainment options.
Those who favor dialogue with authorities have asked that people refrain from public demonstrations and avoid all confrontation, which has caused a split within a network that has experienced numerous schisms throughout its history, which began more than a decade ago.
*Translator’s note: On its website Mochila (Backpack) is described as an “alternative audiovisual entertainment whose goal is the distribution of national and foreign material, offered free of charge by the Computer and Electronics Youth Club, that … corresponds to the principles and values promoted by the Cuban State.” EcuRed is an online government-sponsored encyclopedia.