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Ever since Egypt blocked the web during the 2011 Arab Spring protests, internet shutdowns have become a well-worn authoritarian tactic used by countries like Syria, Myanmar, and Uganda. On June 11, Cuba joined the club, when its government shut off the internet to disrupt protests being coordinated and livestreamed using the island’s nascent mobile data network.
Full shutdowns actually represent a worst-case scenario for any regime: In addition to disrupting protesters, they also disrupt the economy, and make it harder for the government itself to operate. The fact that dictators still find themselves pulling the plug on the entire national internet shows just how much they’ve struggled to censor the web in more targeted ways.
In Cuba, shutting off the web is relatively simple. There is only one undersea cable connecting the island to the rest of the web-browsing world, and its traffic is controlled by a state-run telecom operator. The government also owns the ground stations capable of communicating with satellites that beam internet down from space. With that level of complete control, Cuban authorities can simply cut power to the network, or write a few lines of code that instruct it not to let any traffic in or out.
But keeping the internet online for officially sanctioned purposes, while censoring specific apps and websites favored by dissidents, is much more difficult. In Cuba and abroad, web-connected citizens have learned to use a slew of free digital tools designed to evade firewalls—especially virtual private networks (VPNs). Even in China, which has invested steeply in its online censorship operation, it is still possible (though difficult) to evade the Great Firewall with a VPN.
In moments of crisis, authoritarian regimes have had to admit, again and again, that they can’t fully control the web. For that reason, the blackouts contain a kernel of hope. They show how devilishly hard it still is for a dictator to censor the internet, and how people living under oppressive regimes continue to find new ways to learn and share the truth. —Nicolás Rivero
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