Google’s internet freedom crusade in Cuba
Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt paid a visit to Cuba to address the issue of internet freedom this past month in an attempt to reverse current restrictions on basic rights and alleviate tensions that have existed for fifty years, since John F. Kennedy's administration. Were their efforts successful? It all depends on your definition of what a win means in such a highly censored country. This effort is similar to one made by Google just last year in Myanmar and North Korea, which were both met with massive media attention.
Censorship keeps results of visit unclear
According to TIME, Schmidt chose one of the most receptive audiences available in the Cuban populace to make his speech, and spoke at technical colleges and with government officials to discuss what Cuba currently lacks in internet freedom and proposed solutions on how to move forward. Whether these efforts have achieved any tangible results remains unclear, but matches up closely with the efforts made by Google last year. As if to make their own point known, few Cuban news outlets consented to report on the story.
At this time, very few everyday citizens are permitted to access the internet in their home country. Carl Franzen, a writer for The Verge, estimated that three percent of the Cuban populace currently has reliable access to the Internet based on government reports, and that most of those with the ability to communicate are upper class or work within the government itself. As a result, it's often difficult to learn of any news in the country that isn't reported and government-approved, prompting Schmidt to demand increased access and better person-to-person channels of communication between citizens, which is becoming a necessity in today's instant gratification culture. Though Cuba has made a marginal effort to improve access in the past year, it hasn't yielded much of a result to date.
"The Cuban government has recently made attempts to increase local internet access, activating fiber optic cables from Cuba to Jamaica and Venezuela, and opening over 100 new internet cafes," Franzen wrote. "Still, internet access remains prohibitively expensive for most people in the country."
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez of 14ymedio said that there is little record of Google's visit primarily because citizens are not allowed to share media in real time during speeches, and few are able to access the Internet from their mobile devices.
Potential for further Google outreach this year
It's unclear whether Schmidt and the Google crew intend to continue their internet freedom tour before the summer is through, but countries like Russia, China and Turkey are certainly ripe for a wake-up call. Regardless of future plans, this trip demonstrates the company's full commitment to developing a free internet across the planet – not coincidentally, a positive change that Google could majorly profit from. This is in addition to their outspokenness versus major American internet service providers regarding the persisting issue of net neutrality along with other major affected web presences like Netflix, Reddit and Facebook.
The company's attitude toward internet freedom is perhaps best summed up from this portion of Eric Schmidt's speech in Myanmar last year.
"The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices," he said. "If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about."
The concept that increased freedom of speech makes for a more productive, happier society will remain a point of contention for many highly censored countries, but efforts persist to make the web as open and accessible to all as possible.