By Heidi Heitkamp and Greg Walden
Though a mere 90 miles of sea separate our country from Cuba, the gulf between our approaches to freedom of expression and the digital tools that facilitate it couldn’t be wider – or more consequential.
As thousands of Cubans take to the streets in a courageous fight against six decades of repression, anti-government protests continue to lay bare the fragility of this fundamental freedom in the 21st century.
While “the wave of spontaneous protests that rocked Cuba” was initially “propelled by social media and the proliferation of mobile internet,” the regime responded by “leaving the island virtually incommunicado,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Cuban authorities promptly blocked social media sites and apps like WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook, and Telegram – “engines” that effectively enabled the demonstrations and allowed the world to see the government’s crackdown – in an effort to “stop the flow of information into, out of and within the beleaguered nation,” per the Associated Press. And NBC News said that “since the protests began, the country has experienced widespread online censorship” as part of the largest internet blackout in its history, which includes similar disruptions last fall during protests for artistic freedom.
Such shameful restrictions on speech reflect what AP characterized as a “go-to tactic to suppress dissent” in authoritarian regimes the world over. Indeed, “restricting internet access has become a tried-and-true method of stifling dissent,” in addition to “alongside government-supported disinformation campaigns and propaganda. On the extreme side, regimes like China and North Korea exert tight control over what regular citizens can access online.” Meanwhile, “various governments including those in Venezuela and Iran have in recent years sought to limit or block internet access during protests.” Overall, per the NetBlocks watchdog, “at least 35 countries have restricted access to the internet or social media platforms at least once since 2019” in an effort to “to reduce or prevent unrest — or to hide it from public view.” And so, as the organization’s director adds, the Cuban internet cutoff seamlessly aligns with an “emerging global pattern” to squelch “the internal voice of the population who have wanted to speak out.” It’s no surprise that China, Russia and Iran immediately rallied to defend the Cuban regime.
At stake, therefore, in the broader battle between “techno-autocracies” like China, Iran and Russia and “techno-democracies” like the United States, the European Union and Japan is whether such a perilous pattern will be continued or combatted; whether the internet of the future will be used as an instrument to empower citizens or as a weapon to exploit them.
The American people have been resounding in their recognition that an open and accessible internet is a cornerstone of our democracy – as well as in their call for leaders to protect it. Earlier this year, an Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the American Edge Project captured a broad, bipartisan consensus which we strongly encourage those in Washington to heed, particularly on the heels of the bloody crackdown across Cuba. More than 7 in 10 voters (71 percent) – including a majority of independents (81 percent), Republicans (79 percent) and Democrats (60 percent) – believe “it’s more important to keep the internet open and accessible to all, even if some people post content I disagree with.”
Underpinning this firm belief held among American voters is “near-universal agreement that an open and accessible internet is important to freedom of expression (96 percent), government accountability (94 percent), and America’s role in the world (93 percent). Similarly, more than 8 in 10 (84 percent) believe an open and free internet is a necessary part of a healthy democracy.” As a result, a plurality believe the U.S. should lead the way in setting rules and standards for the internet.
The frightening, albeit all-too-familiar, tactics employed by the authoritarian government in Cuba – along with other recent stories like the detainment of a Belarusian dissident who, according to the Los Angeles Times, “ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of President Alexander Lukashenko” – make clear that our country’s values have never been more vital or more vulnerable. Therefore, as “techno-autocracies” around the world seek to spread their vision of a closed, censored web, we must redouble our resolve to support America’s competitive advantage and the innovators working to defend and promote an open internet.
For example, we encourage President Joe Biden to do everything in his power to help restore reliable internet access in Cuba as soon as possible. Moreover, any effort that would effectively kneecap our country’s most innovative tech companies or cede America’s edge to foreign adversaries must be resolutely rejected.
America’s leadership role in the tech space is a powerful antidote to the pernicious, autocratic ambition of mobilizing the might of the internet against its people. Let’s work together to fortify it.
Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, are advisory board co-chairs of the American Edge Project.
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