The Cuban State and SNET's Approaches to Technological Sovereignty
by Mariela Morales Suarez
In 2008, when Raul Castro ascended to the presidency of Cuba, after his brother's retirement from politics, the Cuban media and technological landscape was changing. Whilst internet use was not introduced and allowed to the entire population on the island until after the thaw of Cuban-U.S relations in 2014; already in the 2000s, Cubans created informal networks using Bluetooth, CDs, and USBs to spread and share information. This practice was the precursor of the now well-known Paquete. Snet was another independent non-internet-based network operating in Cuba until recently. This consisted of a network of computers and users mostly located in Havana with nine nodes distributed mainly at the neighborhood level. The introduction and expansion of internet usage on the island – albeit still offering very slow connectivity - has only bolstered the use, consumption, and production of media and technologies outside government regulation.
It came as no surprise then that, as soon as he took office in 2018, Miguel Diaz-Canel set to update the constitution and worked towards establishing Cuba’s official policy regarding digital technologies, their use, production, as well as the flow of information. Such law came to be know as Decreto Ley 370 or Decree Law 370. The preamble to Decree-Law 370 establishes that “[it] is the interest of the state to increase technological sovereignty,” and that to do so, it is necessary to “regulate the informatization of Cuban society” (Gaceta Oficial, 2019). Informatization of society is further defined in Article 2 as “the process of orderly and massive application of Information and Communication Technologies (TIC by its Spanish acronym) in the management of information and knowledge, with the security required, to gradually meet the needs of all spheres of social life” (Gaceta Oficial, 2019).
Whilst technological sovereignty is not explicitly defined in the text, the term of sovereignty is defined in the Cuban Constitution as “resi[ding] impassably in the people, from which emanates all the power of the State” (Constitucion de la Republica de Cuba, 2019). However, Revolution leaders have before bestowed sovereignty to the institution of the Revolution itself as in Fidel Castro’s speech Words to the Intellectuals for instance. This has created an unresolved contradiction: it is unclear whether sovereignty resides "impassably in the people" or "in the Revolution and its institutions" as representatives of the people. Moreover, technological sovereignty is defined in Decreto Ley 370 as (1) a necessary quality for the economic development of the country through digital technology and (2) a needed moral and political stance to safeguard the nation against attacks. The table below organizes the terms' four uses term according to the categories identified above:
|Uses and definitions of technological sovereignty||Tech sovereignty as economic development force||Tech sovereignty as political and safeguarding force|
|“It is of interest to the Cuban state to raise the technological sovereignty, for the benefit of society, the economy, security and national defense; counteract cyber-attacks, safeguard the security principles of our networks and services; as well as defend the achievements of the Socialist State, being necessary to issue the legal norm that regulates the informatization of society in Cuba.”|
|“… ensure the sustainability and technological sovereignty of TIC in role of the development of the computerization of the country; and encourage and promote the integration of research, development and innovation with the production and marketing of equipment, computer programs and applications, content and services associated with TIC.”|
|“The Ministry of Communications organizes, coordinates and promotes the Industry, in correspondence with the priorities of informatization of the country, aimed at strengthening technological sovereignty, the substitution of imports and increased exports.”|
|“The State promotes the use of programs and computer applications that use open source platforms and national production, with the objective of prioritizing its use and increasing technological sovereignty and national security.”|
The focus on national security and economic development denotes a specific use of the term from and for a collective perspective, and less so as meaning individual sovereignty. According to Couture and Toupin’s (2019) survey of the conceptualization of the term, the collective perspective is the most common form in which nation-states mobilize the term sovereignty when referring to the technology or the digital.
Decreto Ley-370 lists nine minor violations to be legally penalized. Most notably, article 68, section A, establishes that it is illegal to commercialize apps, programs, or tech services without government authorization (Gaceta Oficial, 2019). Section B of the same article, prohibits the manufacture, installment of equipment, and other services that will provide or facilitate services associated with ICTs, without government authorization (Gaceta Oficial, 2019). Lastly, Section F bans the hosting of a “site on servers located in a foreign country, other than as a mirror or replica of the main site on servers located in national territory” (Gaceta Oficial, 2019).
Whist requiring government licensing for the commercialization of scarce resources such as radio spectrums is a common practice in most countries, requiring a license for the commercialization of apps or tech services seems to create an undue burden for the independent and under-resourced tech sector in Cuba. Notably, the law doesn’t clarify whether a one-time license is needed, or whether it would be required by product or service. Besides, by banning web-hosting on servers located in another country, the Cuban government swiftly rendered illegal most alternative media whose sites have been hosted on foreign servers since the government and the official media system doesn’t recognize them despite growing global endorsement (Arego, 2019).
Perhaps most contradictory, the government prohibits in very broad terms offering services such as the installation or manufacturing of technology without authorization. This not only goes against everyday rooted traditions in Cuban society of re-purposing, building, repairing and adapting not only ICTs, but cars, houses, clothes, furniture, and everything else in between as part of individual agency, what most Cubans know as “resolver” or to resolve.
In a country without systematized access to the internet, most households with computers obtain antivirus updates from friends, or friends of friends who install the update for a very small fee. This re-purposing, building, repairing, and adapting is so embedded in the Cuban way of life, that it seems unrealistic to expect Cubans to change such habits when it comes to digital technology. Section B also makes SNet illegal. The street network/ intranet was created by tech and video game aficionados in Havana who wanted to “repair” and “adapt” their internet disconnection by creating a red callejera (or street network) that would allow them to play together, exchange information, and foster a sense of community.
SNet started developing at the beginning of the 2000s. Nodes started appearing independently around neighborhoods; groups of friends connected each other’s computers through cables passed from balcony to balcony. In 2015, members of the network across the city met to coordinate a system of leadership as well as setting rules and sanctions within the network. The General Rules and Sanctions Code stated:
Among the rules are that the use of SNet to undermine the internal order, the security of the country or the stability of the Cuban State is prohibited; it is also forbidden to offer or disseminate services within the network such as Internet, TV or foreign Radio, Pornography or lucrative services. Just as it was endorsed that SNet is not a space for political or religious debate.
Figueredo Reinaldo and Dominguez, 2016
In an interview given to Cubadebate in 2016, one SNet member explained that it functioned under the principle of technological sovereignty. In Cuba, the project has the peculiarity of being incubated as an alternative to the lack of connectivity in the island, not only to the internet but to other national networks as well (Figueredo Reinaldo and Dominguez, 2016). There were many similarities between the government goals and SNet’s, such as developing and fostering a national culture of technological innovation, governing the network under principles of technological sovereignty, and forbidding practices that attempted against the security and stability of the Cuban State.
Despite similar goals, in August 2019, the Ministry of Communications notified administrators that SNet needed to disappear. Users and administrators protested and tried to negotiate with the government the possibility of obtaining a license for operation that was denied. Nodes were ordered to be dismantled, and the government absorbed the network principles and adapted to its Joven Club de Computacion (Youth Computation Club), which is in charge of continuing to manage the network. Yet users claim that the Youth Club has no plans of setting the cable infrastructure needed for network connection. Instead, it hs offered former SNet users access to the existing services of the Club on a fee-per-hour basis.
What the "contravenciones" section of the law and their enactment - such as in the case of SNet - show us is that the Cuban State has found itself trying to conceptualize and mobilize the principle of technological sovereignty, while at the same time undermining the very same principle by over-regulating or in some cases forbidding other groups within its society to practice technological sovereignty.
 Cubadebate is a digital media that is part of the Cuban National Media System. It states in its mission that it exists to fight “media terrorism.”