For more close to thirty years, Yleem and I have studied, and in some cases lived, the U.S.-Cuba policy and political process. We’ve seen more highs than lows, as well as a good share of amusing moments. And, at times, such as when three American-born Cuban-Americans from our generation were killed by the regime, anger, sadness, and, indeed, frustration.
When we learned earlier this that Google had embarked on breaking in to the Cuba market, it was expected. And I’d put it in the amusing category.
From a purely business standpoint, why not? It makes a whole lot of sense. Eric Schmidt saw an untapped market and he wants the Google brand to be the first thing Cubans think of when it comes to the Internet. Google is focused on a future Cuba, not the Potemkin Cuba where only a very small number of people have access to the Internet such as the Communist Party elites.
Google is the only true winner here, not the people of Cuba. As Amar Toor at the Verge correctly points out, the “outlook remains bleak” for a free and open Internet on the island. The people of Cuba were better off with Cuban Twitter or ZunzuNeo than they will be, in the near term, with Google Chrome.
So unless you’re a policy or legal geek, you’re probably asking yourself, I thought the U.S. had economic sanctions in place that barred Americans from doing business with Cuba? You would be correct, however, the law is not enforced as intended and it is also chock full of exceptions. For at least 15 years the economic sanctions have been weakened and not applied as intended. But that’s a subject for another post.
There are few loopholes that allow medical, agriculture, and telecommunications companies the ability to sell products and services to the regime. Then there are also the people-to-people exceptions that allow any American to travel to Cuba, legally, so long as the trip is licensed by the U.S. government as an educational or cultural learning experience. In essence, these trips are tourist travel but no one wants to call it that.
With regards to the Google Chrome, Google used the telecommunications and people-to-people arguments to secure licensing approval from the U.S. government for certain transactions. I’ll avoid the legalese, but Google likely did not need to go an “apply” for a specific license from the U.S. government because there have been regulations on the books for several years that allow for the export of certain browser technology to Cuba. That said, I think the transaction is a little more complicated than a point or a click.
The Communist Party of Cuba continues to dream of a socialist utopia that will never be, especially not in the Western Hemisphere just 90 miles from the United States. Will Google Chrome make it easier for the Communist Party to stay in power longer? I think it does, especially when a majority of the Cuban people do not own computers or electronic devices, and those who do only a very small number can connect to the web.
What the Cuban people need right now is a platform, such as Tor, not Google Chrome, as well a Zunzuneo and similar regime-evading informational tools. For now, the Congress should take a closer look at the Google Chrome deal and should start by focusing on the following (and I suspect Google government relations may have pre-briefed certain offices before the announcement):
- Who did Google executives meet with in Cuba? There are legally required trip reports that must be filed with the Treasury Department before and after any trip of this kind.
- What did the Communist Party request as far as controls or firewalls? Will users be able to remain “anonymous” if they wish to do so?
- Will the Communist Party, or any of its government entities such as the Ministry of Interior, be policing Google Chrome users in any particular way that makes it easier for the regime to monitor people (compared to what it does today)?
- Is Google providing any technical support to the regime that would enhance the regime’s ability to evade U.S. economic sanctions (I’m thinking financial)? This area is especially important when considering the export controls part of the analysis. Remember that the Cuban military and the intelligence services are the private sector in Cuba. I’m certain the good folks at the Bureau of Industry and Security have scrubbed this issue well.
- Is Google providing services that could be used by the regime to spy on the United States?
- What other U.S. companies are part of this deal? Are there any foreign companies that will be part of this effort to deliver Google Chrome?
- If Google learns that Google Chrome, or the Internet generally, is being used by the regime to target opponents, what is Google ready to do in response?
- Did Google use a general license or did it have to apply for a specific license to export Google Chrome? If so why?
- And, most importantly, show me the money. What are the financial terms of this deal and how much money is the regime pocketing? Now and in the future.