Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuba's Internet: Blocked Pages and Chinese Tech

Officials attribute problems of access to economic limitations. The reality is very different.
By Claudia Padrón Cueto
  • (Illustration: Baleria Mena)
    (Illustration: Baleria Mena)

Last September, Cuba's minister of communications Jorge Luis Perdomo gave an interview on internet access to the Russian state channel Russia Today.

Asked if there were any politically-motivated reasons behind restrictions on internet access in Cuba, Perdomo smiled and replied that “there have never been any political motivations to block access to information to the Cuban population”.

He added that “restrictions to Internet access in Cuba are due, only and exclusively, to the economic limitations we have faced”.

Indeed, high-ranking Cuban officials usually justify internet access restrictions due to a lack of financial resources.

Unlike other countries where direct investment in industry usually comes from big transnational capitals, Cuba’s investment is made solely through state-owned companies. 

Furthermore, US sanctions against the Cuban government keep foreign investors away, while the country constantly struggles to import equipment from abroad.

However, the way the internet is managed in Cuba also reflects how the authorities control citizens’ access to content.

Ordinary Cubans have only been able to connect to the internet since 2015, while citizens had to wait until 2018 to be able to use data on their mobile phones. 

And while internet access has grown better in recent years, it remains heavily censored.

The Cuban government has never viewed the internet as a free space. Since it was first regulated in 1996 through the Decree-Law 209, access to information networks was only allowed “selectively”. The decree stated that dissemination of information would not be allowed to “affect the country's interest and security”.

In the following years, almost all aspects of internet access were very strictly controlled. According to a 2003 report from Reporters without Borders entitled Internet Under Surveillance, the government tightly restricted the sale of modems and personal computers, only allowing some state employees to go online.

Later, when more and more people were allowed to access the internet, the government turned to censorship to control it.

In Cuba, only one company, the state-owned Etecsa, provides internet access. According to its own corporate magazine, Etecsa’s primary technology providers are three Chinese companies: Huawei, TP-Link, and ZTE.

China is itself a global leader in imposing severe restrictions on its citizens when it comes to accessing the internet.

In 2017, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a global community that measures internet censorship, found traces of Chinese codes in both the surface and the interfaces used for access portals for wifi connections.

"Etesca’s login portal - through which Cubans access the internet - appears to have been written by Chinese developers, since its source code contains comments written in Chinese. This indicates that Etesca likely hired Chinese developers to implement the portal,” their report stated.

Qurium, a Swedish NGO that defends digital rights, data protection and internet security, recently published a report analysing which technologies were being used in Cuba to block access to websites.  It also reported the possible presence of a Huawei product used for "web filtering”.

OONI's report documented at least 41 websites blocked in Cuba. All expressed criticism toward the government and they belonged to either independent media outlets or human rights activists.  

It also identified restrictions imposed on websites used to navigate the internet anonymously and access blocked pages, such as Anonymouse or Megaproxy.

In some cases, the government blocked webpages related to sensitive issues. For example, Change.org was blocked in 2019 during a constitutional referendum when activists campaigning for a ban on ideological discrimination in universities used the platform to make their voices heard.

In May 2020, the government also blocked a similar platform, Avaaz.org, when a group of activists and independent journalists collected signatures to repeal Decree-Law 370 that sanctions citizens over social media content.

In November, data and metrics from NetBlocks Internet Observatory showed that Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Facebook were not available for an entire weekend – coinciding with a protest by the San Isidro Movement artistic collective, who often use their performances to criticise the regime.

(See Cuba’s Black November).

The Cuban government has also blocked the digital editions of newspapers including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, as well as other media outlets such as Proyecto Inventario o Rialta.

Initially, a protocol was used to prevent so-called HTTP traffic. This meant that when someone in Cuba wrote the address of a blocked page using its HTTP address and the page did not respond, it was never clear whether this was due to censorship or a faulty internet connection.

Later, when webs began using an encrypted traffic protocol, a new method was applied which immediately blocked the IP address of the computer trying to access a particular site.

When this happened, users received a message that they were trying to connect to a site that was not secure. This meant that a firewall had blocked the webpage.

Some sites that were initially blocked using the first method were visible for a while with the HTTP encrypted traffic protocol. But when the authorities began to use the second method, these webpages were no longer accessible.

Nowadays, most independent media outlets in Cuba are blocked, including news and current affairs sites such as 14ymedio, CiberCuba and Periódico Cubano.

Local media outlets are not the only ones that have had their IP addresses blocked. For instance, Cubans used to have unhindered access to Gatopardo, one of the region' s best-known narrative magazines, when it did not regularly cover Cuba.

Then in November 2018, independent Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa began writing a column for them. By January 2019, Gatopardo was no longer accessible on the island.

From mid-October this year, Cuban internet users have highlighted faults in several virtual private networks (VPN) used to access blocked webpages.

One Cuban computer programmer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals explained that after doing a series of tests to determine the reason for these faults, he found blockage by Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).

DPI, also known as packet sniffing, is a type of data processing that detects and blocks access to users attempting to circumvent censorship through a VPN.

“This work requires more than a day or two,” the computer programmer said. “It requires a lot of trial and error to be able to set up such an infrastructure.”

He added he believed that “Cuba is using technology to control the web already developed by other countries, mainly by China”.