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Cuba delays crackdown against illegal access to Internet
CubaNews / February 2004

By Larry Luxner

The Cuban government has postponed a measure that would prohibit the use of peso phone lines to connect to the Internet, while allowing its use for dollars.

The original restrictions were to have taken effect Jan. 24, though Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (Etecsa) has pushed that back following an international outcry.

“The measure is to eliminate theft and illegal sales of passwords, intentional degradations and non-authorized fraudulent use,” said a statement from E-net, which is Etecsa’s Internet service provider and the largest ISP in Cuba. “It will limit the legal and necessary use of the Internet, protecting users, according to what is determined in our contracts.”

When it is eventually adopted, the move could frustrate thousands of Cubans who illegally access the Internet from their homes, using computers and Internet accounts they have borrowed or bought on the black market. Many of them pay $50 a month or more for such access.

The Castro regime already heavily limits Internet access. Cubans must have government permission to log onto the Web legally and most don’t, although many can access international e-mail and a more limited government-controlled intranet at government jobs and schools.

The original plan, authorized by Communications Minister Ignacio González Planas, would allow Internet access only for those who pay for the service in dollars — effectively shutting out the vast majority of the Cuban population. It does, however, exempt “those authorized by chiefs of bodies and organizations of the state administration and within the country’s institutions.”

Ordinary Cubans as well as foreign tourists who want to log onto the Internet must pay around 10¢ a minute at major hotels. But the connections are often very slow, and a Cuban might end up spending his entire monthly salary just for two hours of connection time.

The Cuban government claims Internet connections are so expensive because of the U.S. embargo, and that there must be an orderly, social versus individual, process of going online.

On Jan. 18, González told the newspaper Juventud Rebelde that “everywhere, every day, measures are taken [in other countries] to prevent disorder, which is essential if the Web is to function well. When we ourselves take certain basic measures to control illegality, criticism immediately flares up from people claiming to be worried about the ‘freedom’ of the Cubans, even though [the critics] could confirm for themselves, although it pains them to do so, that the Cuban people are the freest people on Earth.”

Ridiculous, says Amnesty International.

“The new measures, which limit and impede unofficial Internet use, constitute yet another attempt to cut off Cubans’ access to alternative views and a space for discussing them,” the London-based organization said in a press statement. “This step, coming on top of last year’s prosecution of 75 activists for peacefully expressing their views, gives the authorities another mechanism for repressing dissent and punishing critics.”

AI demanded that Cuban authorities “do away with illegitimate curbs on freedom of expression and information, and bring their legislation into line with international human rights standards once and for all.”

In a Jan. 24 letter to a New Zealand newspaper, Cuban Ambassador Miguel Ramírez described AI’s protest as “totally biased and full of prejudices according to the values of western and developed countries.”

Ramírez defended Cuba’s new law as a reasonable measure to “regulate access to [the] Internet and avoid hackers, stealing passwords, [and] access to pornographic, satanic cults, terrorist or other negative sites.”

At any rate, Internet penetration in Cuba is negligible. According to the Communications Ministry, state-owned ISPs hosted 480,000 e-mail accounts in 2003 (about 4.3 per 100 inhabitants), up from 360,000 in 2002, 100,000 in 2001 and 40,000 in 2000.

Of the 360,000 e-mail accounts in 2002, 100,000 had global access, while access for the remaining 260,000 was restricted to Cuba.

Cuba now has roughly 98,000 Internet users, up from 60,000 in 2002. About 270,000 computers are being used by state entities, up from 250,000 in 2002, 220,000 in 2001 and 110,000 in 2000.

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