My Experience with the Internet

by Digital Rights LAC on December 19, 2016

“I know nothing about the internet!.” This was my first reaction when I was invited to participate in the South School on Internet Governance, an event held in Washington D.C. from March 29 to April 1st. This feeling didn’t disappear throughout the whole encounter, but rather grew.

By Karina Gálvez*

My encounters with the net of networks until then had been as a user, to search for specific information, always knowing ahead of time which steps I had to take to get to it. When I started to hear about IPv4 and IPv6 protocols, domain names, zero rating, net neutrality, and other technology concepts, my feeling of knowing nothing about ITCs became a certainty. But I had found a great treasure: I had the curiosity and the conviction that I needed to know, especially after having heard that the internet can facilitate the realization of one of the most basic human rights: freedom of expression.

A workshop with three friends experienced in the issue drew the curtains from my eyes and, boom! there I was, after just one week of participating in the South School on Internet Governance, asking questions and understanding. I couldn’t believe it! It almost seemed easy. It wasn’t really, but an approach to the most elementary concepts, in the clearest and most didactic way, with practical examples and participatory discussions, made this workshop my first real entrance into the world of the internet, into which I had but glimpsed, without daring to cross the threshold.

At the LACIGF, held in Costa Rica on July 27-31 of this year, I was impressed by the movement of ideas and people around these topics. Every sector represented participated in the discussion under equal conditions: the State, the private sector, academia, the technical sector, and civil society. Some of us Cubans also participated, but it was hard to feel party to the discussions.

In Cuba, the problem isn’t a lack of economic resources (though it exists) or a lack of concern by the government; the main difficulty for internet access is the lack of political will. This is the same reason why there aren’t any independent publications or private companies: the Cuban government blocks any personal initiative from its citizens.

In Cuba it is very difficult to access the web. The possibility to use the internet through Wi-Fi hotspots in some parks around the country, paying the equivalent of 2 dollars per hour, with salaries that range between 25 and 30 dollars per month, cannot be considered even minimally acceptable access for any person in the 21st century.

After participating in the workshops, it was very clear to me that the internet access problem in Cuba was an extension of the violation of the right to free expression. Just as the right to free and public expression is violated by law, the right to be connected and to access new technologies that facilitate this right isn’t even part of the public debate.

Nonetheless, today there are many people in Cuba who use Wi-Fi in parks and who connect mainly to communicate with their relatives off the island with video calls, or to use Facebook. There has also been an increase in small businesses (called “independent workers” in Cuba) who work with technology: cell phone and computer repair shops, software updaters, etc. How do they do it, and how did they learn without an internet connection and without resources? I don’t exactly know, but what is true is that in Cuba you can find cutting edge technology and people with the technical skills to use it.

My curiosity when entering the world of the internet and its governance, especially from its social and human rights connotation, had to be shared with other people and communities. First I thought that it would be enough to relate with people already within this world and, at a small scale, I did. I spoke with young telecommunications students who work in technology-oriented jobs. Their professional and technical training was clear from the way they spoke, and they were as amazed as me when the conversation turned toward matters of internet governance, net neutrality, communications surveillance, zero rating or who decides domain names.

It is rare to find a debate on technology and society in Cuba. It is nonetheless possible (although I cannot be sure that in official and academic circles these matters are discussed, the citizenry is kept out of these debates). I was even more impressed when, when speaking with people who never connect to Facebook, for instance, a 70 year old lady told me: “I would love to be able to see the world through the internet!” One person asked me: “Is it true that Cubans are less connected than Haitians?”

After using a new invention, humanity moves at a faster pace, and then, in the midst of debates and discussions, it looks back on the social problems and the divisions it has created, and we realize how we distance ourselves from human dignity when we’re clouded by the advantages offered by these great inventions or discoveries. This looking back isn’t backtracking however, nor a rejection of the good, but rather pausing to observe what we should change and how to do it. We look back to calibrate and moderate, to synchronize progress with human development, which is, after all, the ultimate goal. This is the effort currently underway on the internet.

Cuba begins its connection to the Internet at a time when the world is looking back on the most all-encompassing communications phenomenon in human history. Even with difficulties, we begin to connect. Joining the world of the Internet is an advantage for the Cuban people. We didn’t seek this advantage, but we must nonetheless make the most of it. Cuba has no reason to suffer the same problems as in the beginning. We can be a nation that respects the right to be connected, avoiding discrimination, violations of privacy, and conformism with only partial low-cost internet options.

The Cuban citizenry has the right and the duty to participate as protagonists in this process that is just beginning on the island, but first we must train, educate, and inform ourselves.

For me this has been a first incursion into the world of interconnection, and now I’m certain of two things: from now on we cannot live without the internet and we must know it well if it is to make us ever more human.

*Karina Gálvez is an economist and co-founder of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia in Pinar del Río.