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Cuba: We're forced to 'finance' the Internet

Debate erupts at United Nations summit over Cuba's Net connection, including why it's expensive and whether it's censored.

ATHENS, Greece--A Cuba government official told a United Nations summit here that the U.S. government was to blame for the poor Internet access that its citizens endure.

Juan Fernandez, a government official in the Cuba's Commission of Electronic Commerce, on Wednesday assailed the U.S. government's economic embargo and argued that, as a result, poorer countries are "financing" the Internet. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Fernandez to a high-level working group two years ago.

Fernandez's only problem was that a longtime Internet engineer and researcher was present and challenged those claims. Bill Woodcock, research director of the nonprofit Packet Clearing House who has set up Internet exchange points in Latin America and other developing nations, replied by saying that the Cuban government's problems stem from its own telecommunications monopoly and its official censorship policies.

A report published last month by the Reporters Without Borders advocacy group says "it is forbidden to buy any computer equipment without express permission from the authorities," and spyware "installed in all Internet cafes automatically detects banned content." U.S. law exempts telecommunications equipment and service from the trade embargo (click here for PDF).

Read on for excerpts from the U.N. Internet Governance Forum's official transcript of the exchange during the plenary session.

Juan Fernandez, Cuban government official: I'd like to remind you here that the main obstacles to access to Internet is hunger, lack of education, discrimination and exclusion...But once the underdeveloped countries have undertaken this tremendous effort and sacrifice to create the minimum conditions for them to be able to connect up to the Internet, then they find themselves confronted with a situation whereby they have to pay for the connection up to the Internet at the same level as the developed countries, even though this might also be a channel used by users in the developed countries.

Which means that you can have technical means whereby you can do away with this paradox. And these poor countries seem to be financing (the) Internet by this system.

So my question is specifically: What can we do to change the situation in favor of those who are less advantaged, so far? We have to see how we can, in fact, try to not only reduce costs but to make sure that we can share the costs. And I don't know whether the WTO (World Trade Organization) can be called in on this, as somebody said, or whether we could call on the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) or what we could do.

Ulysse Gosset, a French moderator: Well, before we go any further, what is the number of people who are connected the on Internet in Cuba today?

Juan Fernandez: What?

Ulysse Gosset: What percentage of the citizens are connected to the Internet, in terms of the overall population?

Juan Fernandez: Well, I really didn't want to talk about Cuba, because I didn't want to politicize this forum too much. But you asked me, so I'll tell you. As an awful a lot of you will be aware, Cuba is a small country.

Fifty years ago, it underwent an economic war waged on the by the most economically powerful country in the world. Now, look at Google, for example. If we try and get onto Google, we're told that we can't have access. We can't buy software from Microsoft. We don't have access to fiber optics. All of our Internet over the last few years has had to go through satellite channels. And they're very expensive. And what are we doing about this? Because the cost of connection is very high, we have social appropriation of the Internet.

Ulysse Gosset: I was asking about the percentage of Cubans who were connected.

Juan Fernandez: We don't count this, in terms of individuals who, depending on the money in their pocket, cannot have access. People have connection to Internet, wherever they are, in the mountains, in the schools. More than a thousand schools have only maybe one pupil, because when we say 100 percent in Cuba, we talk about 100 percent.

So a lot of these schools have to put up solar panels so they can have connection. One hundred percent of our universities have Internet. All of our research centers and companies that need it can have Internet access. We don't prioritize individual use of Internet, not because we don't want that; it's because we can't, because we don't have the access, the network, because of the embargo imposed on us by the United States.

Bill Woodcock, network engineer: I was hoping to respond to the question about Cuba. Shall I do that?

Ulysse Gosset: Please go ahead.

Bill Woodcock: Let me preface this with, first of all, an apology for my government's long-standing policies. I'm from Berkeley, Calif., and as many of you who are familiar with the politics in the United States know, this means that I am pretty much 100 percent for Cuba with regards to the embargo and so forth.

With that preface, let me answer the question about what percentage of Cubans are connected to the Internet. Remember that the Internet is an end-to-end model. Zero percent of Cubans are connected to the Internet. The Cuban government operates an incumbent phone company, which maintains a Web cache. Cubans who wish to use the Internet browse the government Web cache. They do not have unrestricted access to the Internet.

And the question about whether there is an inequality in Cuban access to the global Internet, ask yourself whether a Cuban Internet service provider would face any challenges in connecting to a network in the United States or in Europe. And the answer is that, no, these are unregulated markets. They would face exactly the same costs as anyone anywhere else in the world.

Whereas an American or British or French Internet service provider wishing to sell Internet access in Cuba would find themselves precluded from doing so by government regulation. There's a basic incompatibility between heavy government regulation and the free-market model upon which the Internet is built.