There is one place where freedom of expression exists in Cuba: Google servers

People surf the Internet at a public Wi-Fi hotspot in downtown Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, March 16, 2016.
People surf the Internet at a public Wi-Fi hotspot in downtown Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. AP

Although the Cuban government maintains tight control over internet access in Cuba, there is at least one place free of censorship: Google content stored on servers on the island.

Google Global Cache uses local servers to store content from Gmail and YouTube, among others. The service, which began operating in Cuba in late April, is the result of a partnership with the state-owned telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA.

But the agreement signed in Havana in December contains a clause in which ETECSA commits to “not censor, surveil or interfere with the content stored as cache on those servers,” said a source familiar with Google's efforts in Cuba.

This content is encrypted, which would make it even more difficult for the Cuban government to hack it.

Since former President Barack Obama announced the reestablishment of relations with Cuba in late 2014, Google has tried to carry out several projects on the island. The most ambitious was a proposal to massively extend internet access but the government rejected it in 2015. The company had to adjust its expectations and settle for the opening of an internet café at the studio of a controversial Cuban artist known simply as Kcho.

Google executives then offered ​​to store its content on Cuban territory to facilitate the speed and quality of the connection to the popular internet services, but that was no easy task.

Brett Perlmutter, the head of Google Cuba team, had to travel to Havana several times in 2016 to negotiate and persuade a reluctant Cuban government to accept the freedom of information clause, said the source.

Even though tools such as Google Chrome, Google Play, Google Analytics and Google Toolbar are already available on the island, Google blocks other services such as Gmail for businesses and Project Shield, which is used to protect news and human rights sites from cyber attacks.

The issue recently sparked controversy when Cuban activist Rosa María Payá discovered that the website of Cuba Decide — a citizens initiative seeking a plebiscite on the island — was blocked in Cuba and apparently not by the government but because the site was using Project Shield.

“I know that the government blocks a lot of sites, but that time it prompted a Google error page,” said Payá. A Wall Street Journal columnist then accused the company of collaborating with the Cuban government and of being “wholly uninterested in the Cuban struggle for free speech.”

The problem, however, seems to be the U.S. embargo.

In a statement to el Nuevo Herald, Google stated that “in compliance with US law, a number of services aren't available within certain countries including Cuba.”

Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville said Project Shield uses App Engine technology [a platform for creating and storing web applications in the cloud], which is not available in Cuba.

“Project Shield is not available in embargoed countries,” she added.

A study of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) conducted on the island between late May and early June, indeed did find that Google “was blocking access to Google App Engine from Cuba.”

“I would like to know what provision of the embargo forces Google to block an initiative to promote freedom of expression?,” asked Payá.

The answer lies in the tangled web of regulations that make up the embargo, which prohibits U.S. companies from providing any type of service in Cuba, unless they fall under exceptions in the law. There are several in the telecommunications sector but in relation to the internet, the regulations only authorize technology or services that specifically allow the expansion of access and communication. To offer some of these services, companies need additional authorization from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

For example, Cubans initially could use the educational portal Coursera. But the company later decided to block users in sanctioned countries like Iran, Sudan, Crimea and Cuba, after receiving more specific U.S. government guidelines on how to interpret the sanctions.

“The new interpretation indicated that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ and are thus subject to strict restrictions under export controls. While many students from sanctioned countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change required that we restrict access in order to comply with U.S. law,” the company said on its website.

In the case of Google, “we have exceptions for certain services but not for APP Engine,” Faville said.

The Obama administration issued new regulations to expand trade with Cuba, but cloud storage services were not included in the new exceptions.

Other companies such as IBM have also blocked their cloud storage service. IBM’s Softlayer warns users that its service does not work in countries under U.S. economic and trade sanctions, including Cuba.

On the other hand, companies offering content storage services face higher legal risks, which can lead them to make more conservative or drastic decisions.

According to experts with knowledge about how sanctions are applied, technology companies cannot fully control content posted by third parties on their platforms. At the same time, they remain legally accountable. In case of doubt, then, many opt to block all content or potentially problematic users to avoid stiff fines from the U.S. Treasury Department.

For now, Project Shield remains beyond the reach of Cubans.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres