Freedom House ranks Cuba’s Internet as ‘not free’

Cuba’s Internet remains one of the least free in the world, suffering under “prodigious government regulation” that have left it with little access to almost anything except for e-mail, the rights group Freedom House reported Thursday.

The number of Web sites blocked by censors has remained about the same since last year and the government still uses a “cyber militia” to attack dissidents, the Washington-based non-profit noted in its global Freedom on the Net report for 2013.

Branding Cuba as “not free,” the report’s 14-page chapter gave it an 86, with zero being the best and 100 the worst. Also on the “not free” list: China, Vietnam, Syria, Belarus, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burma and Pakistan.

Cuba “has long ranked as one of the world’s most repressive environments for information and communication technologies,” it said. “High prices, exceptionally slow connectivity, and prodigious government regulation have resulted in a pronounced lack of access to applications and services other than e-mail.”

Only select government entities have benefitted from the ALBA-1 fiber optic cable that was turned on earlier this year, the report said, although the ultra high-speed cable had been expected to allow much wider, cheaper and faster access to the Web.

At least a dozen dissident bloggers were detained and one independent journalist, Calixto Martinez, whose reports appear on several online sites, was held without formal charges for six months. Even generally pro-government blogs were blocked when they crossed the official line of acceptable criticism, the report said.

Freedom House also reported that government censors blocked Cubans’ access to phone numbers abroad for systems such as the U.S.-based Digalo sin Miedo — Say it Without Fear — once widely used by activists to publicize abuses.

The system allowed Cubans to call a U.S. number and record a brief complaint. A computer would then email an alert to those who had signed up for the service, such as exiles who support the dissidents or journalists who report on Cuba.

Government censors also tightened controls on access to the Web in the workplace — the vast majority of Cubans with Internet connectivity get it through their jobs in state agencies and enterprises — and continued to use computer-savvy supporters as foot soldiers in a “cyber war” against government critics, according to the report.

The “cyber militia,” for instance, uses blogs or Tweets to accuse dissidents of cheating on their spouses or pocketing money meant for others, and send emails to journalists abroad pushing the Cuban government line but pretending to be simple citizens.

“Surveillance remains extensive, extending to government-installed software designed to monitor and control office e-mail accounts as well as many of the island’s public internet access points,” the report added.

Most mobile phones in Cuba do not have access to the Internet, according to Freedom House, founded in 1941 to advocate for democracy, freedom and human rights around the world.

The report also noted that Cuba’s communist-era constitution “explicitly subordinates freedom of speech to the objectives of a socialist society, and freedom of cultural expression is guaranteed only if such expression is not contrary to the Revolution.”

In one of the few positive developments mentioned, the report noted that the Cuban government loosened travel restrictions in January and allowed some critical bloggers, such as Yoani Sánchez, to leave the island for the first time in years.

The Cuba chapter of the report, which covers developments up to April, was written by Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a Cuba-born author who lives in Spain and edits the blog Penultimos Dias — Penultimate Days.

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