Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where there is smoke, there is fire -- will Alan Gross be released soon?

Senators Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said they met with Gross for about two hours during a trip that included meetings with Cuban officials and they were optimistic about the release of Alan Gross.

That was two days ago. Today, they returned without Gross, saying the Cuban's insist upon a swap for the remaining Cuban Five and the US insisting that that would not happen. Flake and Udall refused to endorse the swap. Still, Flake said he does feel they are closer.

I still wonder if something is in the works. There has been a flurry of news about Alan Gross lately. Articles about him have been turning up in my "Google Alerts" pretty much every day, and the New York Times ran three editorials on Cuba and matters related to Alan Gross in the past month:
Can you think of anything else a Republican and a Democrat senator agreed on during the last six years? In spite of this setback, momentum -- perhaps a PR campaign by the White House -- seems to be building and we still may see Alan Gross released.

Here is a video of the two senators talking about their views of Alan Gross and our relations with Cuba:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Cubans and Americans have cooperated

Sprint, a U.S. corporation with funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, provided Cuba's first Internet link.

Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, praised Cuba for their contribution to the fight against ebola during a panel discussion at the ebola crisis at the Manhattan headquarters of Thomson Reuters.

She just returned from a fact finding trip to West Africa and said of Cuba
I think they announced that going on almost two months ago, And they are sending another 200 on top of that 265. That is a big gap and a big need.
She also said it gave her great pride
To see these Americans or Europeans or Cubans or whoever it is in their full protective gear, in the scorching heat, working two-hours shifts, because that’s all you can tolerate being in that suit.
When the moderator asked a leading question about US relations with Cuba, she answered
There’s no integrated effort, in part because the UN is doing the command and control. But we’re very grateful to them for doing this.
Below, you see two Cuban doctors at the largest of 17 ebola treatment units (ETUs) in Liberia, which will be mainly operated by Cuban doctors and nurses. It is noteworthy that the picture was posted on the Voice of America Web site and funding is from USAID.

I'm posting this in a blog on the Internet in Cuba because it reminds me of the collaboration and friendship of Cuban and American networking technicians during the pre and early-Internet days.

The day Cuba established its first IP connection to the Internet, Jesus Martinez, Director of Cuba's National Center of Automated Data Exchange (CENIAI), the organization responsible for networking at that time posted a statement saying
After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "caiman of the Indies," has been connected to the Internet as we had desired. We have a 64 Kbps link to Sprint in the U.S.
Sprint, a U.S. corporation, subsidized by funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, provided Cuba's first Internet link.

At that time, American networnkers were welcome visitors at CENIAI and at Cuba's Informatica conference and Cubans and Americans and others attended and taught in the Internet Society's annual Developing Country Workshops and conferences. There was no politics and no big money, just a common belief in the importance of the Internet.

Martinez and his colleagues were not politicians seeking power or representatives of corporations seeking monopoly profits, they were technicians and others who believed that computer networks were fascinating and held great potential for improving the world. They may have been naive, but one has to respect them and we owe the same to any medical professional coming to West Africa to treat ebola patients.

Cuban doctors and USAID in Liberia

Jesus Maritnez and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf

CENIAI staff, 1990

American visitors at CENIAI

Internet Society Developing Nations Workshop, 1993

Update 11/12/2014

Wall Street columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady says Havana earns almost $8 billion a year off the backs of the health workers it sends to poor countries. She says Cuba is well paid for sending doctors abroad and the doctors themselves get very little. O'Grady calls this "slave trade," which sounds like click bait, and Listening to the interview, it seems that a lot of her conclusions are speculative. You can see the interview for yourself here:

If you are a Wall Street Journal subscriber, you can read her column here.

A reader of this blog, who is a Cuba-trained physician now living in the US, has told me Cuban doctors are eager to go abroad because there is nothing for them to do in Cuba. O'grady paints a different picture. I have no reliable way to form an opinion -- just passing these links along.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A modest connectivity pilot proposal

Would the Cuban government be willing to test a few low-speed satellite links that were not controlled by ETECSA?

I had an interesting exchange with a reader this week. He took exception to my assertion that the sorry state of the Internet in Cuba today has its roots in three factors -- the US embargo, Cuba's depressed economy during the "special period" after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Cuban government's fear of free information.

He agreed with the first two points, but asserted that the third was speculation on my part. I replied that during the early days of the Internet, government officials, including Raúl Castro, argued that freeing of information had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also asked him why, if they did not fear free information, wouldn't today's government allow private citizens to establish satellite connections?

In an earlier post, I said that, even if the government were willing, Cuba could not afford to cover the island with modern Internet infrastructure or attract foreign investment to do so. (Even if they could attract the foreign investment, I would hate to see Cuba's Internet future in the hands of companies like AT&T and Comcast).

In that post, I suggested that decentralized satellites could serve as an affordable first (interim) step on the way to a modern Internet. If the government is not afraid of free information, would they allow a small pilot study to see if satellites work, how people use them and what the costs and benefits are?

For example, would they give permission to install a few satellite dishes -- perhaps on a residential street or in a school, clinic or Joven Club in a rural area?

The cost would be small -- I would be willing to cover a year of satellite service out of my own pocket (or better through Kickstarter funding). It would be an interesting project and help settle the question raised by my reader.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Nieman Foundation says there are over 2,900 Cuban public interest blogs.

Yoani Sánchez launched her blog, Generation Y, in April 2007. (Her first post contrasted the freedom Cuban's had to display posters saying “Go Santiago!” during baseball playoffs with their inability to display a poster saying “Internet for all!"). In 2011, she told us that the free blogosphere had taken off. A recent post on the Nieman Foundation blog says there are now over 2,900 blogs dedicated to debate and discussion of issues related to the public interest in Cuba. (Is there a report underlying that statistic)?

The blogs are based in Cuba, Spain, the US and other nations with Cuban communities, and they are often in conflict with the Cuban state media. For example, a blogger disclosed math test fraud in Cuban college entrance exams the day after the exams were praised in the state media. Since Internet access is highly limited in Cuba, blog news is often distributed on the "street networks" which we have described in these earlier posts.

It takes a while, but it seems that even in Cuba information truly does want to be free -- at least in one sense of the word.

Meeting of the Cuban "blogger academy" in 2009

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cuba's sneaker net

Yaima Pardo, 34, in her home in Cuba as she describes her project PaSA
(Paquete Semanal Autnomo), an independent weekly digital-media package for Cuba
A recent article (English or Spanish) describes the black market distribution of music, soap operas, TV programs, movies, magazines, Web sites, etc. on flash drives.

There is a tiered distribution system. A terabyte drive arrives each week in Havana and is replicated for distributors and eventually sold to end users on the street or delivered to homes. While the material is generally sold to the end user, ads are starting to pop up on distributions. The article does not say whether there are competing distribution networks or how material is selected for inclusion. A detailed description of the process would be most interesting.

The distributions contain no political messages or pornography. The article quotes one person as speculating that Cuban authorities might tolerate the weekly “packages.” It is not clear to me whether the master packages are downloaded or brought in on portable drives, but the authorities turning a blind eye would facilitate either means.

The article also describes PaSA (Paquete Semanal Autonomo) a project of film maker Yaima Pardo. Pardo and her colleagues hope to produce an independent, weekly digital-media package that will be open to more controversial content and distributed for free.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blog Bang Cuba: a Cuban blogging documentary

Claudio Peláez Sordo has made a documentary on Cuban blogging for his masters thesis at the University of Havana. It shows interview snippets of specialists and bloggers who access the Internet from school or work accounts controlled by the Cuban government.

The video was posted September 3, but has had only 458 views so far.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cuba has made Chrome available for download -- what has changed?

Google announced yesterday that folks with Cuban IP addresses can now surf to and download a copy of the Chrome browser. That is a small bit of good news, but, what has changed?

While Google could not legally "export" Chrome to Cuba before yesterday, Cubans who want US software have always been able to get it. During an early trip to Cuba, I visited a government storefront in Havana where you could get copies of the latest software releases -- as long as you brought your own floppy disks and, if you wanted a manual, printer paper. Today software circulates on (non-government) flash drives. I don't think this announcement changes anything for the few Cuban users with Internet access.

Did Google change their policy? I doubt it -- they have always wanted people to use Google software and services -- on principle and also to show them ads. In 2011, they made Google Earth, Picasa and Chrome available for download in Iran, saying that some export restrictions had been lifted. The post also says they are:
committed to full compliance with U.S. export controls and sanctions programs and, as a condition of our export licenses from the Treasury Department, we will continue to block IP addresses associated with the Iranian government.
In 2012, they made Chrome extensions available for download in Iran and in 2013 the Google Earth plug-in became available.

In a terse post on the Google policy blog, Pedro Less Andrade, Director of Government Affairs & Public Policy, Latin America, says "we’ve been working to figure out how to make more tools available in sanctioned countries" and I believe him.

I see no reason to believe the Cuban government would have objected to users having Chrome instead of another browser, so that leaves US policy -- has US policy changed? It has obviously changed at least a little bit -- Google would not offer Chrome without a license. If they are taking the piecemeal approach they used in Iran, this is a trivial announcement, but this might signal a more significant shift.

Google's announcement refers to "evolving" trade restrictions -- has the "evolution" sped up? Could this announcement be related to the trip Eric Schmidt made to Cuba last month?

Schmidt was accompanied by Jared Cohen, Google's Director of Ideas, who, before joining Google, was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. Google has Washington insiders like Cohen and Schmidt as well as lobbyists, and I'd like to think that making Chrome available is just the start of a major shift in Washington policy -- encouraging any export or service that enhances Cuban communication and connectivity and indemnifying US companies against any claims the Cuban government may have against them. One can even imagine Google or US Satellite Internet companies providing connectivity to Cubans. The Castros might not be too crazy about that idea, but I can dream.

Being able to download Chrome will have no impact on Cuban users, and I do not think either Google or the Castro government had to change policies to allow it. If anything has changed, it is the policy of the US Government -- let's hope this was the tip of the iceberg.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Annual report on Cuban ICT

The Cuban National Statistics Office reports over one million computers and twice as many .CU domain names as the previous year.

The Cuban National Statistics Office has released their 2014 Information and Communication Technology report. Here are the statistics on computers and networks:

They say there are over a million computers in Cuba and about half of them are networked. They report nearly 3 million Internet users, but say nothing of how many of those users have global access. The experience of a Cuban "user" is also much different than that of a "user" in a developed nation -- most access is via shared computers over dial up links. Access is infrequent and too slow to support modern Web sites.

For more discussion of the limitations of these statistics, see the Pervaiveness section of my 2011 report on the State of the Cuban Internet. The data has changed somewhat, but not the interpretation.

The number of .CU domain names doubled in 2013, reflecting a sharp increase in the number of businesses and other organizations using the Internet. This could have been triggered by liberalization of laws allowing private sector business.

The percent of the population with cell phone coverage was unchanged in 2013, indicating either a lack of capital for investment or a lag in the statistical reporting process.

These statistics are gathered by the Communication Ministry and, as with other nations, self-reported to the International Telecommunication Union.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Cuban man-in-the-street view of Alan Gross

Iván García has written a post on Alan Gross in which he gives some insight into the man-in-the-street's view of the case. A kid who lives in a poor neighborhood near the prison hospital where Gross is being held says he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba.” That is how the Cuban media characterize the case.

When Ernesto, a man who repairs bicycle and car tires, was told what Gross had actually smuggled into Cuba, he remarked that “they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys?”

Ernesto understands what we have said previously -- Cuba has greatly exaggerated the impact Gross's equipment would have had had he succeeded. What he doen't know is the amount of money the US spent on a plot that would have had virtually no impact had it succeeded. (There is an indication that the government may have paid up to $6 million for the project and Alan Gross would have cleared $164,889 had he succeeded).

There are no good guys in this story.

Update 8/17/2014

The Huffington Post has an article on the politics of the Alan Gross case. It blames Raul Castro and US politicians for the stalemate.
Under the law when and where they were arrested Alan and the Cuban Five were guilty. The fairness of both trials left much to be desired and the sentences were excessive. The bottom line is that all were witting and willing instruments of anachronistic policies but they have paid an undeserved price because of their governments inflexibility and self-righteousness.

Update 9/5/2014

The Associated Press reports that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the "Cuban 5," is "cautiously optimistic" about a trade of the remaining Cuban prisoners for Alan Gross. That is the good news. The bad news is that his hope is based on things like Hilary Clinton's book and faith in President Obama, nothing concrete. Gonzalez said he thought freeing Gross without freeing his three colleagues "would be very difficult."

For other posts on Gross and what he actually did, click here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Forget politics for a minute -- how about entertainment?

Twenty years ago, while working on a study of the Internet in India, I had a chance to meet Professor M.S. Swaminathan, at his research foundation in Chennai. Our research framework included several facets of the Internet in a nation, including its use in commerce, education, government and health care. Professor Swaminathan pointed out that we were completely overlooking what would be the most important application, entertainment.

This was long before selfies, YouTube, Angry Birds or Netflix existed -- he was on to something that we "serious" academics could not see.

Observers of the Cuban Internet have a tendency to focus on serious applications like political dissent, health care and education, but we should heed Professor Swaminathan's admonition.

I've noted that wired and wireless local area networks are springing up around Cuba, and, evidently the government is trying to crack down on them. But, most people are using these networks for entertainment -- games, posting selfies, watching video, listening to music, etc., not politics.

Cuban entertainment is also found on the Internet. For example, Silvio Rodriguez, singing a traditional song, Ojala, has over 17.5 million hits on YouTube:

and recent song, Ojos Color Sol, sung with the Puerto Rican hip hop duo Calle 13 has had close to 5 million hits.

A young Cuban singer, Kamankola, has used the Internet in a different way, raising over 3,000 € on the Verkami crowdfunding site to produce his debut CD "Antes que lo prohiban."

Maybe we are paying to much attention to the political applications of the Internet and not enough to cultural applications.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A report of cabled local area networks in Cuba

I wrote about WiFi-based local area networks (LANs) a while ago and, according to an article posted on Cubanet, cabled LANs are now proliferating in Cuba.

The article says some LANs use underground cables to avoid detection and others run their cables above high voltage electricity cables. (Wouldn't they have problems with interference if they used cables with standard insulation)?

Cabled LANs are faster and able to accommodate more users than WiFi-based LANs, and, to the extent that the cables were under ground, harder for authorities to detect. (The article sites a case where, 5 months ago, a network was detected and the system administrator was fined 30,000 Cuban pesos).

Typically, users pay 2 convertible pesos or 50 Cuban pesos per month for access, which the article says is less than the going rate for pirated cable TV. (Years ago, people in Havana openly pirated broadcast TV intended for hotels, then they started pirating satellite TV and now LAN TV -- Cubans are natural cord cutters).

The article quotes a 22 year old user who says he can play games, download movies, post comments and upload photos ... "of course, nothing against the government." We heard the same thing about WiFi LANs -- they are being used for games and selfies, not political debate or subversion.

This article is anecdotal -- are any readers using a cabled LAN in Cuba? Are they widespread in and outside of Havana?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Another USAID project in Cuba

The Assoicate Press reports of a now defunct USAID funded program to encourage Cuban dissidents. As with Alan Gross, this program seems to have put naive people in danger, while supporting Creative Associates International, the contractor that organized the project. This and the Alan Gross case remind me of the Washington contracting system, which gave us the broken Obamacare Web site (bad news) and the fresh approach being taken to Internet application development by USDS and 18F (good news).

Ex-office of Creative Associates organization in Havana

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What are Cubans doing with their smart phones?

Necessity is the mother of invention.
Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher, 1973.

When personal computers became availaible, people began developing low-cost medical diagnosis equipment like this PC-based endoscope, which replaced a $30,000 instrument with a PC interfaced to an $800 scope:

Today, smart phones are being used as computers in diagnostic equipment and the savings are even more dramatic, as in this retinal scanner, costing $500, phone included:

What's happening in Cuba?

Cuba is known for the quality and quantity of their doctors, health care system and medical research. Cuba also has many computer scientists and resourceful developers. While Cuba has second-generation cell phone infrastructure, Cubans still have third and fourth-generation smart phones, which they use as cameras and handheld computers.

All that is good news. The bad news is that Cuba does not have a lot of capital for building clinics and purchasing diagnostic equipment.

Cuba sounds like a perfect environment for innovation in medical applications of smart phones. Are Cubans developing and using smartphone-based tools for medical diagnosis and community health? If you know of such examples, please let me know.

More generally, what sorts phone-based applications are Cubans using and developing? No doubt they are taking selfie-photos, listening to music and playing games, but what else are they doing with those pocket-sized computers?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Could Google provide Internet access in Cuba?

The obstacles are political, not technical

Eric Schmidt and other Google executives traveled to Cuba where they met with members of the Internet community and the government. Google is providing Internet access in a few US Cities and is considering others -- might they provide Internet access in Cuba?

Consider the following:
Of course, both governments would have to agree for Google or any other satellite ISP to connect Cubans. I believe that, if the Cuban government would agree, the US would as well.

But, the Cuban government has feared the Internet since the time of their first IP connectivity in 1996. At that time, there was high level debate about the Internet. The hard liners, led by Raúl Castro, argued against the Internet while others argued for a "Chinese" approach of supporting Internet use while censoring content and surveilling users. (It seems Fidel Castro was ambivalent).

The hard liners won in 1996, but what about today? Schmidt reports that a "number of the people" he spoke with said "the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico." If some of those were young government officials, there may be a glimmer of hope.

Update, July 3, 2014

It is noteworthy that Jared Cohen, Google's Director of Ideas, accompanied Schmidt on this trip -- before joining Google, he was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton.

Update 8/22/2014

MIT Media Lab founder Nichlas Negropont gave a TED talk summrizing his work over the last 30 years. He concludes with his plan for the future -- using stationary satellites to connect the "last billion" -- the poorest, rural people -- to the Internet. (That part of his talk begins at 17:05). He mentions that he has partner in this project -- might it be Google?

Here is what he had to say:
And so my plan, and unfortunately I haven't been able to get my partners at this point to let me announce them, but is to do this with a stationary satellite. There are many reasons that stationary satellites aren't the best things, but there are a lot of reasons why they are, and for two billion dollars, you can connect a lot more than 100 million people, but the reason I picked two, and I will leave this as my last slide, is two billion dollars is what we were spending in Afghanistan every week. So surely if we can connect Africa and the last billion people for numbers like that, we should be doing it.

Update 11/6/2014

I have suggested satellite connectivity as an interim step for Cuba on the way to a modern internet, but, might Google bring a Google Fiber-like project to Havana if it were not for political barriers? They are providing fiber connectivity in Kampala, Uganda -- why not Havana?

But, even if they provided a fiber backbone in Havana, how would the end users in homes and offices be connected? Google may be working on an answer to that as well -- they are experimenting with high-speed, short range wireless connectivity.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

NPR on the Internet in Cuba -- repeating party lines

Josefina Vidal
NPR is in Cuba for a week, and a segment on today's Morning Edition program touched on the Internet. Josefina Vidal, Cuban director of US relations said "one of the reasons" for Cuban's inability to access the Internet was the US embargo blocking access to underwater cables, but she did not elaborate on the other reasons  nor did the interviewer, David Greene, push her and forgot to mention the ALBA-1 cable.

She also denounced USAID efforts like Alan Gross bringing equipment into the country and the more recent revelation of their covert sponsorship of Zunzuneo.

The segment concluded with a USAID official saying "The US will continue to support the Cuban people's ability to communicate with one another."

When Greene suggested that the Castro administration was using the embargo as an excuse for their poor economy, Vidal challenged the US to drop it and see what happened.

I wish Greene had challenged her to allow Cubans to have satellite Internet accounts -- I'd like to see what would happen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

ETECSA will provide service to non-agricultural coops

ETECSA has been authorized to provide Internet service for Cuba's 245 non-agricultural cooperatives.

The access will be restricted to the cooperative's location and will be dial-up only in order to stop them from reselling access. They will pay the same rate as state entities.

For background on the cooperatives and their importance see these posts.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Cuba's WiFi crackdown -- substance or theater?

The New Republic blog reported on a crackdown on a 120-user WiFi network in Havana on May 26 and the Miami Herald reported on that crackdown and three others, one of which had 400 users.

When one hears of a "120-400 user network," one might imagine 120-400 simultaneous users downloading files, posting social media content, communicating with each other and, even, maybe, accessing the Internet. But that is unrealistic.

The articles report that these were WiFi mesh networks. I worked on two WiFi mesh networks around ten years ago and in spite of having fast backhaul to the Internet (by Cuban standards) they were limited in physical range, speed and the ability to serve many simultaneous users. (For more on these networks in the figures at the end of this post).

So, ten years ago, router overhead and link bandwidth severely limited WiFi mesh networks. But, what about today's improved equipment, as used in Cuba? The articles mentioned above say the networks used Ubiquity Nanostation M2 outdoor routers, shown here:

These are much faster and have better antennas and radios than we had ten years ago, but they are WiFi devices, designed for local area networks. I have no experience with the Nanostation M2, but I checked the "most helpful" five-star review on Amazon. The review was written by an installer, who states that "One customer uses them for a bridge covering 300' line of sight ... and gets 150 Mbps throughput, which is fantastic." That is better than the equipment we used ten years ago, but it does not sound like a link in a network in which multiple users are simultaneously downloading the latest episode of their favorite TV show from a PC server or surfing the Web (Cuban or World Wide).

I suspect, though do not know, that the routers are running Commotion, a mesh networking program developed by the New America Foundation with funding from USAID. They have piloted networks in a number of cities but I am not familiar with any reports giving performance and capcity data. If you have used a WiFi mesh network in Cuba, I would love to hear about your experience.

Given the limitations of WiFi and the need to keep antennas out of site, I suspect that Cuban WiFi networks are primarily serving and being used by tech enthusiasts -- like our pre-Internet dial-up bulletin boards. These networks would have a hard time competing with shared flash drives for distributing music, video and software and they do not offer a practical, sharable path to the Internet or the Cuban intranet -- they do not seem to me to pose a political threat.

(We can imagine future mesh networks using very fast cell phones with smart, non-WiFi radios as posing a political threat -- see this speculative paper on a mesh network in North Korea).

If I am correct, why did the government bother to shut these networks down and why is the enforcement somewhat sporadic?

Cracking down on these networks is reminiscent of, though less tragic than, the Alan Gross case in that the government is overstating their threat. Had Alan Gross succeeded, it would have meant little, and, if my speculation about the performance of these mesh networks is accurate, they too have little political or practical importance.

Enforcement also seems to be selective. Several networks were closed down, but people openly advertise WiFi equipment and weekly packets of entertainment and software for sale on the Revolico Web site, for example:

They may have stopped these networks as a PR/propaganda measure -- for internal and external consumption. Perhaps it is just a general slap to intimidate people who are uncertain as to what the rules and regulations really are -- to let them know who is boss. Another possibility is that these networks might be seen as a threat to ETECSA's revenue. It does not seem like much today, but one could imagine mesh networks as one day impacting ETECSA's bottom line.

It seems that issue of WiFi networks was included as part of a discussion at a forum in Havana earlier this week. Were you there?

Update June 24, 2014

I have had off-the-record conversations about these WiFi hotspots with people in Cuba since writing this post. They say there are many such networks -- possibly in every large or medium size city in Cuba -- and the networks are not political. There are unwritten rules against political discussion and a member could be banned for breaking them. They say the major uses are sharing programs, songs and videos and playing games.

This tends to confirm my suspicion that these are more like hobbyist bulletin boards than a political threat and still leaves me speculating about the motive is for closing some of them.

Two WiFi mesh networks -- ten years ago

This university housing network was a class project connecting 22 small apartment buildings to 100 Mbps backhaul links (in the red buildings). The three buildings on the lower left were unable to connect to the backhaul points, so we installed a two-hop mesh to extend the network to them. The addition of a single hop added significant latency and we could not have realistically gone further. 

Around the same time, I worked on a public-access WiFi mesh network with a radius of around 2,000 feed for laptops with external antennas in downtown Hermosa Beach, California. The meshed computers shared a 6 Mbps backhaul link, as shown here, the traffic was spiky, but spikes saturated this link at times.

Update 11/21/2014

A friend forwarded me a link to a story on another crackdown on a Cuban WiFi network. Five men were arrested and their equipment confiscated.

As we see above, this and similar networks do not pose a political threat and, indeed, the charges against the five were not political, but economic -- the arrests were the result of a complaint by Cuban State Radio and the men were charged with illegal economic activity.

This sounds like a desire to protect an economic monopoly and it reminds me of the efforts of Internet service providers in the United States lobbying for state laws that prohibit local governments from offering broadband service.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, has said he would seek to invalidate those laws. Perhaps small WiFi networks like this (and "sneaker nets") should be considered legitimate small businesses and encouraged as part of the Cuban Small Business Initiative.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Iván García's description of the Cuban "computer rooms" -- a success in spite of everything

The internet arouses affection and fear.

Iván García has posted a great description of the Cuban "computer rooms". (As he notes, there is no good English translation for "salas de navegación").

Here are a few random quotes:
  • On average, each internet room has received 7,600 customers a month in the first 12 months. Some 250 internet users a day. 25 an hour: the internet premises are open 10 and a half hours every day of the week, from 8:30 am to 7 pm.
  • Of the blogs or webs originating in Cuba, like Primavera Digital, out of every 100 people consulted, only 9% said they copy the contents onto a pendrive to read later at home.
  • A technician tells me that, right now, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) has a fleet of vehicles equipped to detect illegal internet signals and cable satellite channels.
  • The connection speed can’t be compared with what you find in other countries: between 512 Kb and 2 Mb.
  • For those who like to read the international media, the favourites are the BBC, El Pais and the Financial Times. Of the Cuban pages, the most visited are Diario de Cuba and Havana Times, and, of the Miami newspapers, El Nuevo Herald and Diario de las Américas.
I better stop before I copy the entire post -- go read it for yourself.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yoani Sánchez' digital newspaper, 14ymedio, is online

The daily Web newspaper 14ymedio looks like a fully traditional digital "newspaper" with news, sports, culture, opinion, fashion tips, weather, etc.

The 14ymedio "declaration of intentions" says the team is committed to promoting truth, freedom and human rights, without ideological or partisan ties -- they hope to provide a space for respectful debate and to contribute to the peaceful transition to democracy. A group of 28 writers and intellectuals, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Lech Walesa, signed a request that the Cuban government respect 14ymedio and allow it to exist with free expression.

Evidently some pro-government people were not happy with the launch of 14ymedio -- the Cuban domain name server was hacked, and Cubans looking for were automatically redirected to a pro-government Web site. Doug Madory of Renesys reported that the hack was local to Cuba and the site was visible in foreign nations. Madory speculated that the hack had been done by someone inside ETECSA.

Today, relatively few people on the island can afford to access 14ymedio online, but stripped down PDF and text versions are available. For the first issue, they were quite minimal -- hopefully they will improve -- becoming something like the daily New York Times Digest. It could also be included on flash drives that are regularly distributed on the island. Regardless, I hope the hack was a rogue action and the paper turns out to be the impartial forum envisioned by the founders.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mobile email demand disrupts cellular service, but ETECSA is growing

Last week we reported on "growing pains" for mobile email as reported in Granma, but a new Washington Post (AP) story elaborates upon the problems. They report that the new mobile email service has performed poorly and also disrupted the regular voice call and text message service. (the story in Spanish here).

The report presents several anecdotes along with discussion of the high price of mobile service and ETECSA's business. Most interesting was a statement by Emilio Morales of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group that 54 percent of mobile payments to ETECSA come from the Cuban diaspora, mostly in the US, and that a new class of roughly 400,000 independent businessmen and their employees make heavy use of cellphones for advertising with text-message as well as ordinary business calls. It seems that in spite of growing pains, ETECSA is a growing source of hard currency.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yoani Sánchez' digital newspaper, 14ymedio

In a recent post on a different blog, I pointed out that the Internet "crowd" had quickly ruined the reputation of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling but that visibility on the Internet gave Yoani Sánchez cover to speak harshly and eloquently against Raúl Castro -- "a man alone in the crowd."

Sánchez, her husband and a staff will begin publication of their digital newspaper, 14ymedio, next week -- a further sign of her growing confidence in speaking out.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Growing pains for mobile email

Granma reports that demand for email from mobile phones (100.000 new users) has led to congestion on the cellular network of "over 500" base stations, so ETECSA is expanding the network. They will add 80 new base stations -- 15 are already online.

Congestion is not the only problem they are facing. It seems many of the phones ETECSA sells do not support GPRS and ETECSA support staff are not trained to cope with the variety of phones people have.

I don't doubt that they will correct these problems, but we are still talking about 3G service in limited geographic areas. As I've suggested earlier, upgrading to modern infrastructure would require significant investment and perhaps legalizing satellite access could bridge the gap.

(Thanks to Doug Madory for the tip).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Windows XP lives on in Cuba

Isbel Diaz Torres reports that, in spite of Microsoft stopping support last week, Windows XP "refuses to go" in Cuba.

Evidently, XP remains the most common operating system in Cuba. Torres notes that Windows 7 and 8 have been slow to catch on because of memory requirements, quipping that "at this very second, someone may be setting up a 486 and installing Windows 95 in it on the island."

The article describes efforts by the government and UCI to move people toward open source software, but it seems that Linux is not widely used.

This article reminded me of an earlier post on the cost of obsolete technology in Cuba.

It also reminded me of a recent post by Yoani Sánchez on essential iOS applications. One would expect her to be talking about essential Android applications -- are there more iPhones than Android phones in Cuba?

I don't expect that folks in Cuba were getting patches and upgrades to their XP installations, so the cessation of support is not big news there.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alan Gross declares a hunger strike

I was saddened to read that Alan Gross will go on a hunger strike as a protest against both the governments of the U. S. and Cuba over his incarceration.

I wonder if the USAID policy makers considered the effect it might have on Alan Gross if further covert programs were run in Cuba when they were planning and funding the establishment of ZunZuneo?

I also wonder whether the Cuban government will tighten its hold on Gross in retaliation for the ZunZuneo revelation.

Gross is already in poor health, and, a little over a year ago said
I currently weigh 144 pounds. I am 5 feet, 11 inches tall. When I was arrested, my weight was approximately 254 pounds.
He summed up the reason for the hunger strike as follows:
I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.
For more details on the case and what Gross did, see these posts.

Update 4/11/2014

Several sources have reported that Alan Gross ended his hunger strike at the urging of his family and friends.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

USAID funded ZunZuneo

The Associated Press reports that Cuba's ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like service based on text messages, was fincanced by USAID. (Twitter was also initially based on texting).

USAID also financed the work of Alan Gross.

Was this deception illegal -- in Cuba or the US? Was it imorral?

More later, but you can read the AP report here:

and watch CBS News video coverage here.
Update 4/3/2014

I only wrote a quick note this morning and had to do other things, but I want to add some thoughts on this revelation.

This is the third effort I know of by the USAID to facilitate Internet communication in Cuba. First and best known is Alan Gross' attempt to bring in satellite equipment. The next try was also a satellite connectivity project, but no one was arrested so it attracted less attention.

Like everything else in Cuba, opinions on this are sharply divided. For example:

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee said "USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished." I imagine Fidel agrees with him.

But Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended the effort saying "The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies."

There is no black-white truth. I share Senator Menendez' strong belief in the free flow of information. I also understand Senator Chaffetz' point that the effort makes us look underhanded and dishonest, undermining our credibility.

On balance, I have no problem with the effort to facilitate communication with and among Cubans and, if this goal were to be achieved, the program had to be covert.

I do; however, have a problem with the fact that our goal was not simply to provide a communication channel, but we also monitored that channel in an effort to collect data on the Cubans using the system. We wanted to know who used the system and what their political views were. I wonder where those electronic profiles are now and who has access to them.

It would have been easier to support an effort to enhance communication then step away and let the people use it as they wished -- for or against the government or for talking about rock bands -- like Twitter.

I also believe that this program made more sense than the satellite communication efforts mentioned above. Even if they had succeeded, they would have had little impact at great cost. We wasted our money and Fidel got a propaganda prize. (That being said, a large, government sanctioned satellite program would be an effective interim step toward modern Internet connectivity in Cuba).

One thing is for sure -- this "outing" will be politicized in the U. S. and Cuba -- the Republicans and Fidel will jump on it.
Update 4/4/2014

I did a short interview on BBC Radio yesterday. My interview was preceded by a 30-second introduction by the host, Tom Green, and a 30-second statement by White House press secretary Jay Carney in which he said "USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong."

If this was not a covert action, why the front companies and where was it publicized? And, if it was a development program rather than an intelligence program, why was it discontinued?

You can hear the entire BBC segment (5m 35s) here.

You can see a longer statement by Carney, in which he says "It is neither covert nor an intelligence programme," here.
Update 4/7/2014

An excellent article by Anne Nelson puts ZunZuneo in context and gives reasons why it was a "terrible idea."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Cuban National Assembly has approved a new law designed to attract foreign investment. This BBC report summarizes the changes in policy and this Reuters article is a bit more skeptical, giving examples of problems encountered by previous investors. (The law was passed unanimously -- compare that to proceedings in the US Congress -- the Cuban approach does have some advantages :-).

What does this mean for the Internet, if anything? Cuba bought out Telecom Italia's interest in ETECSA in 2011, but the government does not seem to have anywhere near the capital necessary to build modern Internet infrastructure. Might ETECSA be open to new foreign investment?

Today, ETECSA, is jointly owned by Rafin, S. A. and the Ministry of Information and Communication. I do not understand Rafin or their relationship to ETECSA, but they are not a foreign investor. It is hard to imagine a foreign investor willing to partner with both the government and Rafin in view of the government's ambivalence about freedom of communication.

I've proposed investment in low cost satellite connectivity, which could be afforded by the Cuban government, perhaps partnering with a US satellite partner, but that is a no-go if the government fears open communication more than it values its economic and social payoff. (I've been led to believe -- off the record -- that such a deal would be approved in the US).

I will be surprised if this change in foreign investment policy has any impact on the Internet, but you never know.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Five Cuban projects are among the nominees for WSIS Project Prizes

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) convened international meetings to work toward a global information society. The WSIS Project Prizes contest provides a platform to identify and showcase success stories and models that could be easily replicated; empower communities at the local level; give a chance to all stakeholders working on WSIS to participate in the contest, and particularly recognize the efforts of stakeholders for their added value to the society and commitment towards achieving WSIS goals.

You can learn cast your vote here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Yoani Sánchez's first impression of email

Yoani has written a post on her experience in signing up for and using mobile email.

The Cubacel clerk warned her that the account was not configured for email, and, when Yoani said she could to it, the clerk asked for help. The clerk also told her the traffic was not routed over the ALBA-1 cable.

Yoani subscribed to a number of email lists, which worked well, and says emailing a photo to a service like Flickr is much cheaper than MMS was. She succeeded in exchanging email with folks in Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Matanzas as well as Havana.

Of course, she is not naive -- "every word written, every name referenced, every opinion sent via Nauta, could end up in State Security’s archives."

The service she describes is far from what most of us take for granted, but it is a step in the right direction.

(Think what they could do if they would allow satellite connectivity).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cuban home connectivity prices leaked (with a tidbit at the end of the post)

Diario de Cuba reported that Etecsa will begin selling home Internet connectivity in September. Prime time prices will be:

The night time price (8PM - 7AM) will be 20 CUC for 90 hours, with a charge of 20 convertible centavos per hour after the limit is exceeded.

Access to the Cuban intranet will cost less, but they did not give prices.

They reported that ADSL service will be available in some areas, but said nothing about where. My guess is that most users will be restricted to dial up connections. It also remains to be seen which, if any, Web sites will be blocked.

At these prices, there will be a lot of overhead slack for home owners to sign up for a plan then resell access to others.

Here is the interesting tidbit:

The post shifts topics near the end, with a brief undersea cable discussion, saying that an unnamed ETECSA official said that the US Government had approved an $18 million proposal for an undersea cable connection between Florida and Cuba in 2010. Cuba opted instead for the $70 million ALBA-1 cable.

Has the US approval been documented? If Cuba did in fact turn it down in favor of ALBA-1 (or both), one cannot help suspecting corruption.

Update 3/9/2014

Etecsa has announced yet another expensive service, mobile intranet email for 1 CUC per megabyte sent or received.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is the U. S. blocking Cuban Internet access?

In a recent post, I looked into the charge that Coursera had blocked access to their educational material at the request of the U. S. Government. Subsequently, Cartas Desde Cuba charged that the US Government had ordered satellite ISPs to block access to Cuban accounts.

I followed up on these and this is what I found:

The U. S. Treasury Department denies asking satellite ISPs to block access to customers in Cuba and Cartas Desde Cuba did not reply to my email asking for the source of their report. That leaves me with no reason to believe the charge that satellite ISPs were told to cut off Cuban accounts.

Coursera is one of three prominent U. S. sources of massive, online educational material. I followed up with the other two, edX and Uacity, to see if they had been told to block access to their material:

EdX: They applied for a Treasury Department license without being asked to and it was granted (after seven months).

Udacity: Google serves their material, and as far as they know, it is not blocked. I asked Google, but they did not reply. (Google never replies to me).

Coursera: They were asked by the Treasury Department to block access, but they are seeking a license to serve blocked nations.

Overall, the Treasury Department seems willing to grant these licenses (as with edX), but evidently wants to review each case (as with Coursera). Either way, the process takes a long time. Furthermore, how many organizations unilaterally censor themselves in order to avoid problems? This feels more like bureaucratic rust than an intentional policy, but blocking or delaying access to free educational material is a bad idea -- they should clarify the policy.

Update 9/27/2014

Coursera has received permission to make their material available in Cuba and Sudan. The good news is that a Cuban can see the course material, the bad news is that getting this clearance took nine months and few Cubans have the bandwidth and connectivity to use the Coursera site. Perhaps Coursera material will be used in universities.

As I've suggested earlier, Cuba should be a provider of Spanish language, online education.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How does one post material on the Cuban "sneaker net?"

Warhol P has written a Havana Times post on the Cuban "sneaker net" -- the circulation of movies, TV shows, software, etc. on flash and hard disk drives.

He reports prices of 50 Cuban Pesos (around $2) for 80 to 500 gigabytes of material and 10 Cuban Pesos for 8 to 16 gigabytes. (These days one can get 64GB USB-2 flash drives for under $30 and 128 GB drives for under $50).

Warhol P says home delivery service is available and some consumers go to the home of the supplier to put together a package in accordance with their preferences. Other suppliers rent out hard drives for three to four days for a little over 4.00 Cuban Convertible Pesos (around $4).

But I have a question -- how does one gain access to the sneaker net? For example, I have developed some Spanish language tech teaching material for young people. It is under Creative Commons license and I'd be happy to see it distributed in Cuba. I'd also like to see the Khan Academy teaching material distributed in Cuba using KA Lite, a packaging of the Khan Academy content for use off line.

Are the sneaker net distributions put together in the US? Are they pretty much only entertainment and software or are they open to other types of material? Is there a way to submit material for inclusion?

Cuban mobile Internet prices

Cuban authorities have announced that mobile Internet services will be available on the island soon at a maximum rate of 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) per megabyte of data transferred. (1 CUC = 1.14 USD).

As far as I know, they have said nothing about the technology (3G or 4G?) or the locations in which it will be available.

But, they did announce the cost, and in case you imagined Cubans streaming Netflix movies or Pandora songs to their mobile phones. let's look at the cost of doing so at the published rate:

These are Apple's conservative file size estimates.

(Lest you consider the Cuban costs outrageous, consider that, if Apple had charged the same rate for song downloads as your friendly US phone company was charging for text message bits a few years ago, a song would have cost you $5,486).

Mobile Internet access at these prices are well beyond the means of ordinary Cubans even if they only do a little Web browsing and email. In the past, the Cuban government has justified high Internet prices by saying they were needed to ration scarce international satellite bandwidth, but, now that the ALBA 1 undersea cable is operating, what is the justification for these prices?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela cracks down on the Internet

The tension between the benefits of the Internet and it's power as a political communication tool has been with us since the early days of the Internet. When the Internet came to Cuba, the government debated this Dictator's Dilemma and decided to limit and monitor access. The Venezuelan government took a more liberal stance and, today, the Internet is more advanced and ubiquitous there than in in Cuba.

The current political protests have led the Venezuelan government to crack down on the Internet -- see these posts from the Electronic Froteir Foundation, the Associated Press and Aljazeera America.

Perhaps President Maduro wishes Venezuela had adopted the Cuban policy. How, if at all, does this affect Cuba?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cuban mobile access prices

Cubansocial gives us a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the monthly cost of mobile Internet activity in Cuba. The estimate for email and a bit of Web browsing is 2-300 megabytes per month. That would cost 1,000 to 1,500 CUC if one paid the following "maximum" rates rates.

Who pays less than the maximum rate? Who uses mobile Internet?

Note the WAP tarif -- a reminder that Cuba is not using current technology.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Bit-l list server

This is an unusual post -- it is an email message from the Bit-l list server, which has been edited by Ing. Jorge Espresate X. since the very early days of the Internet in Cuba.
As you see, it is a system for retrieving articles by sending an email message. I am posting it now, because email-based retrieval systems were shown at the Hackathon for Cuba last weekend in Miami.
BIT-L is a terrific service, but its limitations are testimony to the price Cubans have paid for their antiquated Internet.
Here is the Bit-l subscriber information and current article list:

Envíe los mensajes para la lista Bit-l a

Para subscribirse o anular su subscripción a través de la WEB

O por correo electrónico, enviando un mensaje con el texto "help" en
el asunto (subject) o en el cuerpo a:

Puede contactar con el responsable de la lista escribiendo a:

Si responde a algún contenido de este mensaje, por favor, edite la
linea del asunto (subject) para que el texto sea mas especifico que:
"Re: Contents of Bit-l digest...". Además, por favor, incluya en la
respuesta sólo aquellas partes del mensaje a las que está

Asuntos del día:

   1. Nuevos BITs, 4376 a 4380 (


Message: 1
Date: Sun, 02 Feb 2014 22:24:03 +0100
Subject: [Bit-l] Nuevos BITs, 4376 a 4380
Message-ID: <>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII

La Habana, CUBA, 


Estimad@s suscriptor@s y amig@s:


Los que utilizan Outlook Express en alguna de
las variantes de Windows deben leer este mensaje
hasta el final... les ayuda.

BIT-4376    2014/02/03 (3 pags.)
 por Arnaldo Coro A.
 de GiGA, No. 2 - 2013
BIT-4377 -- 2014/02/04 (4 pags. y figs.)
 (pide las figuras a: jespres@... )
 PC World, Especial, No. 4
BIT-4378 -- 2014/02/05 (5 pags.)
 por Benoit Breville y Pierre Rimbert
 de Le Monde Diplomatique No. 218, 12/2013
BIT-4379 -- 2014/02/06 (6 pags. y figs.)
 (pide las figuras a: jespres@... )
 por Alberto Castro G.
           de PC Actual, No. 255 
BIT-4380 -- 2014/02/07 (3 pags.)
 por Alain Karioty
 de BYTE TI, No. 212 Ene/2014
los BITs donde se anuncian figuras o tablas, cuando te interese 
verlas, debes pedirlas con un mensaje a:
indicando siempre el numero del BIT donde se anuncian 

Recuerden que la lista de suscriptores ya estA en Mailman y para 
suscribirse o borrarse de la lista, hay que entrar a:   

o puedes pedirla directamente a: 

Los BITs tienen que pediros a:  


Son Boletines tecleados en Courier New 12 ptos. convertidos 
a ASCII sin compactar ni codificar y con acentos y otras 
peculiaridades del espanol, con la letra correspondiente y 
el signo ~. (a~, e~, n~... etc.) 

Para recuperar todos los BITs o el que te interese, debes 
enviar un mensaje escrito en ASCII a: 


dejando el asunto en blanco o lo que es lo mismo, en el
Subject: no pongas nada 

y en el cuerpo del mensaje (donde este se escribe) con 
letras minusculas empezando a partir de la esquina superior 
izquierda de la pantalla y poniendo una solicitud en cada 
linea. tampoco le pongan firma a su mensaje.

Si hacen copia y pega, el mensaje puede ser:
get bit bit-4376
get bit bit-4377
get bit bit-4378  
get bit bit-4379
get bit bit-4380

(si quieres recuperar todos los BITs de este anuncio).

(si quieres saber que se ha publicado en los BITs
sobre eu tema que te interese, p.ej. "memoria") en otra linea pones

search bit "memoria" [YA FUNCIONA]

(si quieres recibir el indice de todos los BITs publicados)

index bit [NO FUNCIONA]

y finalmente


y lo 
<e>nvias> o <s>end>, y recuerda... sin firma.


Para los suscriptores que utilizan el software OUTLOOK 
EXPRESS que han de ser muchos...

debes tener presente que este software de manera predeterminada 
envia los mensajes en formato HTML y el Listproc de listas no los 
entiende y te los devuelve.
Siempre, antes de enviar un mensaje al listproc de listas, con 
el Outlook, debes entrar al menu FORMATO de la ventana MENSAJE 
de ese software y marcar la opcion: TEXTO SIN FORMATO o PLAIN 
TEXT... al utilizar esta opcion, el mensaje que vas a enviar, 
se escribe en ASCII y asi, no tendras problemas para recuperar 
los BITs, los search o el index que te interese!!!  

Recuerden que si no les llega el aviso con el anuncio de los 
nuevos BITs deben enviar un mensaje a:

        chirrin chirran... ya se acabo!!!

        hasta la semana que viene...!!!

Suscribete a BIT... es gratuito! y... te actualizas! 
Avisale a tus amigos que estudian o trabajan la Informatica

Ing. Jorge Espresate X.
Editor de BIT
Boletin Gratuito
Moderador bit-l


Este mensaje le ha llegado mediante el servicio de correo electronico que ofrece Infomed para respaldar el cumplimiento de las misiones del Sistema Nacional de Salud. La persona que envia este correo asume el compromiso de usar el servicio a tales fines y cumplir con las regulaciones establecidas



Subject: Pié de página del digest

Bit-l mailing list


Fin de Resumen de Bit-l, Vol 119, Envío 1

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coursera courses blocked in Cuba (by the US!)

I just got an email from reader and contributor Doug Madory with the subject "Coursera blocked in Cuba."

My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material -- maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?

But, following the link Doug sent, I discovered that Coursera has been blocked by the U. S. because they were violating export control regulations prohibiting U.S. businesses from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. 

I try to keep my political opinions off this blog, but that is brain damaged.

Coursera says they are "working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries."

I realize that few people in Cuba can access Coursera classes, but even as a largely symbolic gesture, that is a no-brainer.

Update 2/5/2014

I have followed up on this story in an attempt to determine whether the U. S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ordered Coursera to block access to Cuba (and other nations -- Iran. North Korea, Libya and Sudan) or the company blocked access unilaterally in order to avoid possible problems.

Reader Alam Brito pointed out that the Google Code and SourceForge sites were also blocked. (Follow the links in the previous sentence to see their statements on the issue).

I've attempted to contact each of these companies to learn whether the government ordered them to block Cuba and the others. Here is what I have learned so far:
  • Coursera says they were told to block their site by both OFAC and the State Department.
  • SourceForge had promised to get back to me.
  • Google has not answered emails or phone calls.
I also contacted OFAC.  They said they could not comment on specific cases, but sent a copy of the following policy statement:
  • OFAC administers various sanctions programs, including programs that generally prohibit the exportation and re-exportation of goods, services, and technology by U.S. persons and entities to persons located in or ordinarily resident in Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Cuba.
  • For the purpose of these sanctions programs, the prohibition on exportation of services by U.S. persons would apply to the provision of online courses and issuance of certificates of mastery upon completion of an online course to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries, unless specifically or generally licensed.
  • While we will not comment on specific licenses, generally speaking, OFAC has a long history of licensing U.S. academic and educational institutions to engage in exchange programs in third countries as well as to provide certain in-country and online academic and educational training programs in the past.
  • Some programs, such as the Syria sanctions, contain a general license by which U.S. persons and entities are generally authorized to export educational services to persons located in Syria without the need for a specific license from OFAC.
  • Where not authorized by a general license or subject to a specific licensing policy set forth in our regulations, OFAC has a favorable licensing policy to authorize U.S. persons to engage in certain targeted educational, cultural and sports exchange programs, as well as research and humanitarian projects that are designed to benefit people in sanctioned countries. Of course, under a favorable licensing policy, U.S. persons need to come in and seek a license - without that, we cannot act.
  • OFAC, in consultation with the State Department will continue to consider requests by U.S. persons to engage in activities to provide online courses and certificates of mastery to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries.
The fifth bullet point sounds rather positive, but Coursera's optional fee for a certificate of completion might be a sticking point.

OFAC also suggested that I contact edX, which, like Coursera, provides online classes. An edX spokesman said they had never blocked their site, but had requested an OFAC license to allow access in the embargoed nations. The application process took seven months, but the license was granted and they remained open.

So far, it sounds like OFAC is open, but wants to consider each case separately, so requires a license application. I may be wrong, and will hopefully hear more from the blocked companies.

While edX succeeded in obtaining a license, the delay and effort seem inappropriate and the policy is vague enough to discourage potential service providers -- self-censorship by confusion. OFAC should streamline the license application process, but, more important, should clarify their regulations so companies like edX and Coursera could avoid the process entirely.

Stay tuned for feedback from the other companies.