Google execs visit Cuba: How is digital diplomacy working?

Google chairman Eric Schmidt led a delegation of employees to Cuba this past week to advocate for removing government restrictions on the Internet. How did Google's digital diplomacy effort go?

Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” Can the company practice what it preaches – even in Cuba?

A delegation of Google employees, headed by executive chairman Eric Schmidt, traveled to Cuba this past week in an effort to advocate for removing government restrictions on the Internet.

The executives met with Yoani Sanchez, a prominent blogger and dissident who runs the independent 14ymedio news portal, a site blocked in Cuba. According to 14ymedio, “the objective of the visit was to promote the virtues of a free and open Internet.”

But the company’s public advocacy for a free Internet encountered unexpected obstacles.

“Google has an interesting position because they offer certain services that are not available to Cubans because of United States sanctions,” says Ellery Biddle, editor of Global Voices Advocacy project and soon-to-be fellow with Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Biddle, who specializes in Cuban Internet-related issues, is skeptical of Google’s ability to promote a free Internet due to the half-century-old trade embargo against the Caribbean island.

“There is a difference between what they say and what they actually do. It’s not clear to me that Google is doing anything yet,” Biddle says, as legal issues hinder the company’s Internet access promotion.

In other countries, the US government and Google have worked in concert in trying to ensure greater uninhibited Internet access.

Cuban officials may be particularly leery of Google intentions, too, in light of the work of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned in 2009 after traveling there on clandestine USAID missions to expand Cuban Internet access. Now serving a 15-year sentence for illegally bringing satellite communications equipment to Cuba, Gross was convicted in March 2011. USAID then attempted to establish what Cuba described as a covert Twitter service. Its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project.

Joining Schmidt on the Cuba trip was Google Ideas director and former State department staffer, Jared Cohen, a champion of digital diplomacy.

Cohen has sought to harness Silicon Valley as a force against government censorship of the Internet, from supporting Google’s refusal to censor search results in China to imploring Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance during Iran’s Green Revolution protests of 2009.

When it comes to Cuba, the American government and Google may hold conflicting priorities.

“There’s been an interesting dynamic playing out for years, Biddle says. “The US government, on one hand says, ‘oh the Cuban government is trying to restrict access to information and all the economic benefits from the Internet.’ At the same time, [Washington] was making it difficult, policy-wise, for Cubans to access the Internet at prices they can afford.”

Biddle mentions that due to US sanctions, American companies could not install fiber optic cable to the island, delaying its allocation for years until Venezuela offered to help.

Barring the current trade embargo, Google would be able to provide greater services to Cuba.

“If Google or another company of a NGO or a US government agency tried to actually change the equation there by building infrastructure there, I see that as having ramifications,” Biddle says.

She listed concrete steps that Google could take, such as flying a hotspot balloon equipped with WiFii around with the island. (In fact, that describes Google's Loony Project).

Internet access on the island is spotty, with limited access to government-approved websites, according to Reuters. Only a small minority of Cubans uses the Internet.

According to Biddle, Cuban state media has not reported on the visit by Google executives. The Cuban government often tries to present a different face to the world than the one shown locally, she adds.

Schmidt has previously visited North Korea and Myanmar, two countries known for their closed access to the world economy and the Internet.

During Schmidt’s visit to North Korea in 2013, he received criticism for lambasting North Korea’s economic and social isolation while granting thousands of requests from government agencies to remove Internet content.

Google complies with almost half of government take-down requests, according to Quartz, an online publication.

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