Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Internet is "dumb" and micro-management is dumb

In my report on the state of the Cuban Internet, I characterized the Cuban Web as being stuck in the mid 1990s. I cited quite a bit of evidence for that conclusion -- let me give you one example here.

I went to the Web site of the Ministry of Informatics and Communication (MIC), which one would expect to be relatively sophisticated and modern, but the site is definitely "Web 1.0" with little information and no interaction. It is a poorly designed online brochure.

Drilling down I found something that may be more telling about the Ministry -- one must apply to establish a WiFi network. Not only is permission required, one is expected to print out an application form and fill it in rather than apply online. (If you have trouble downloading the form, click here for a mirror copy).

Needing permission to set up a WiFi network is startling. The success of WiFi in other nations was due to its being an open standard in a license-free spectrum band. The industry has thrived and WiFi has become an important part of our communication infrastructure because one can walk into a store, buy a low-cost access point, and set it up at home or work. In Cuba it seems that one must fill in a form stating the make and model of every WiFi access point.

Judging from past comments, some readers of this blog will see this registration requirement as a draconian attempt to control access to information and curtail freedom. Others will say it is necessary because Cuba is at war with the US and has to take appropriate protective measures.

Let me offer another possible explanation. Might it be a reflection of a sort of "bureaucratic Alzheimer’s disease" -- an attempt to keep control and find a meaningful role for a fearful bureaucracy during hard times? It is reminiscent of Cuba’s recent decision to privatize government jobs, in which they list permitted occupations.

This sort of micro-management seems more desperate and dysfunctional than evil. Bureaucrats being bureaucratic -- that's what they do. My intuition says this is a more plausible explanation of WiFi regulation than those of the left or right, but I could be wrong. Regardless of the explanation for the registration procedure, it is discouraging, and micro-management will stunt the growth of the Cuban Internet.

The Internet was intentionally designed to be a "dumb" network. The network would only move data as fast as possible between "smart" terminals connected to it. That design decision led to decentralized innovation and capital formation. University students were able to launch software like the Linux operating system or start companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Dell without permission from the government or a network operator. It was an open network and millions of people were free to experiment with novel hardware and applications. The same can happen in Cuba.

Will the new MIC minister make significant changes?

P. S. The application form contains what is probably an inadvertent error in that it refers to the 2456 – 2482 MHz frequency band, whereas the standard low-frequency WiFi band is 2412-2484 MHz. They do not even mention the 5GHz WiFi band – that may be an oversight or it may be illegal in Cuba. Does anyone know about Cuban WiFi frequency regulations?


  1. This is a totalitarian regime, so their goal is TOTAL CONTROL. By now they probably realize this is impossible in the modern world. The obsolescence of Totalitarianism is inevitable, just like what it happened to Feudalism, Slavery etc, its days are counted because total control is no longer feasible (Wikileaks couldn't have stated it any clearer). The Internet is a fish bone in the regime's throats and they will do anything to impede its natural spread or at least delay it as much as possible so that the old Nomenklatura is in hell by the time young Cubans realize the prison(s) they have been living in (the after me the deluge approach). The micromanagement you mention is intentional, not another inefficiency inherent to the system. In the meantime, there is another very popular means of spreading information in Cuba. I used to call it, the "A pie" Internet, translated "On foot" Internet, when I was living in Cuba and making extensive use of it. Basically, young Cubans are using the inexpensive, small and hardy USB thumb drives, Cds, Dvds and portable hard drives to exchange information among their most trusted friends. "A Pie" mesh networks take shape in such a way. The use of a combination of encryption and steganography (providing plausible deniability in case of an arrest) make it really hard, if not impossible, for the secret police to incriminate anyone. Most information exchanged this way doesn't have a political nature, it's mainly entertainment materials (many young Cubans are apathetic towards politics for many reasons which I don't have time to explain), however politically charged local underground music and TV programming from Miami makes its way to Cuba every now and then this way. We can help by donating these and other cheap and portable means of exchanging information, i.e. multimedia capable cell phones with bluetooth, usb drives, CDs, DVDs, Netbooks, encryption software etc. The problem with Wi-Fi is that it's too easy to detect, the police confiscates all hardware when illegal networks are detected and more repressive measures are on the way. It's easier, faster and less risky to walk to your neighbor's house with 500 gigs worth of information on an encrypted hard drive than setting up Wi-Fi and have the secret police knocking at your door in the next sweep. Satellite Internet is very useful but again, combined with Wi-Fi is a disaster waiting to happen. Satellite Internet stations must be stand alone, to be used as a way to make CDs containing, for instance, httracked (spidered) Blogs which would be encrypted, steganographied in multimedia content and shared only with one or two trusted contacts at the most, who in turn would change the encryption keys and share it with others.

  2. > A pie network

    We used to talk about "sneaker nets" years ago.

    This post makes me think of the cassette tapes with speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini that were said to have played a part in the Iranian revolution. I wonder to what extent the parallel holds up and how large a role the tapes actually played.

    Could we learn more about these networks in Cuba without putting people at risk?

    > shared only with one or two trusted contacts at the most

    Intuition says that the material would propagate faster and spread further if the average number of connections were higher than one or two. There are people who make mathematical models of networks -- it would be interesting to see that sort of analysis of "a pie" networks.



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