Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Internet during the anti-government protests in Cuba

On Sunday, July 11, thousands of Cubans, took to the streets in anti-government protests triggered by COVID, the faltering economy and an overwhelmed healthcare system. In four days, at least 118 large and small protests took place across the island. The following is a snapshot of an interactive, crowd-sourced map showing the locations of the demonstrations (94 reported on the 11th, 14 on the 12th, 7 on the 13th and 3 on the 17th).
For the interactive version, many with images and videos, click here. As the images and photos show, the government responded with arrests and violence in some cases.

The government also began blocking the Internet on the evening of the 11th, as shown in the following graph, posted by Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik.

It was totally blocked for a short time, then partially blocked. Madory speculated that they may have been trying to figure out how to block certain portions of the country.

Several messaging apps were blocked during the protest period. As you see below, the encrypted messaging app, Signal, was blocked at 10:41 PM on July 11 and was still down on the 17th. (UTC is four hours ahead of Cuban time). Messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram were also blocked, but not Facebook Messenger.

Cloudflare was also monitoring the situation in Cuba and, as shown below, there was a marked shift from mobile to desktop traffic. I read reports that mobile access had been cut off, and there are periods where 100% of traffic was from desktop users, but some mobile traffic moved during the protests.
Another interesting shift was in the percent of traffic written by humans to that from bots. Some of this shift may be a result of the blocking of human traffic or from increases in search engine activity. Since they report percents rather than absolute levels, it is hard to know.
In spite of blocking and suspension of Internet service in Cuba, there was a roughly three times increase in Cuban traffic during the protest time -- Cuba was in the news and Cubans were doing their best to communicate.

When blocked, many Cubans accessed the global Internet using the Psiphon VPN service. As shown below, the number of VPN users grew steadily during the protest period and reached a peak of 1.389 million daily unique users on July 15. I bet many new people learned about VPNs and learned to use Psiphon during the days of protest.

The Cuban protests and Internet shutdown attracted widespread attention and we have seen sympathy demonstrations throughtout the world -- particularly in Florida. Politicians from Florida's Governor Desantis and Senator Rubio to President Biden have spoken out in support of the Cuban people and called for some sort of technical intervention to strengthen and guarantee Cuban Interent access, but I don't see how that can happen without the agreement of the Cuban government.

The Internet-supported protests in Egypt led to the downfall of a dictitorial government, but the euphoria was short lived since the protesters were polarized.  Large crowds took part in pro-government rallies across Cuba on the 17th. Let's hope for political reform and compromise in Cuba.

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