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As Cubans protest, government cracks down on internet access and messaging apps

Various governments, including those in Venezuela and Iran, have in recent years sought to limit or block internet access during protests.
Image: A man looks at his cell phone in Havana July 13, 2021.
A man checks his cellphone in Havana on Tuesday. Eliana Aponte / AP

As protests grip Cuba, the country's government has taken steps to block citizens’ use of the encrypted chat apps WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, researchers say.

The entire country went offline for more than 30 minutes on Sunday, according to researchers who study internet censorship. Since then, virtual private networks, which are tools used to reroute internet traffic that can circumvent some internet censorship, and popular communication apps in Cuba have been blocked.

Cubans have taken to the streets since Sunday to protest against the government in the midst of an economic downturn and a major health crisis, as the country still struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Many protesters have organized online and shared videos of police detentions.

But since the protests began, the country has experienced widespread online censorship.

Various governments including those in Venezuela and Iran have in recent years sought to limit or block internet access during protests.

Widespread internet use in Cuba is still relatively new, and Cubans mostly reach the web through their smartphones. The country only has a single major internet provider, the national telecommunications company ETECSA.

That means most Cubans have to rely on a single, centralized, government-affiliated hub, making government censorship substantially easier.

NetBlocks, an internet monitoring company, said Monday that it had detected disruptions to multiple messaging apps through ETECSA’s service.

ETECSA did not respond to a request for comment, and has not made a public statement about the outages.

A number of messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, are all blocked in Cuba, said Arturo Filastò, the project lead at the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).

OONI, an international nonprofit, relies on volunteers around the world to install a program that probes for which types of internet use are being censored and how. Its data showed that ETECSA began blocking WhatsApp on Sunday night, then Signal and Telegram on Monday. All three were still blocked on Tuesday, Filastò said.

"We have never seen instant messaging apps being blocked in the country,” he said. "It’s sort of unprecedented that we would see such a heavy crackdown on the internet in Cuba."

Marianne Díaz Hernández, a fellow at the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, said some Cubans have reported that their specific SIM cards for their phones have been rendered useless, keeping them offline. And some virtual private networks have themselves been blocked, she said. Two major VPNs, Tor and Psiphon, appear to still work.

While Cuba has deployed various censorship techniques in the past, this is the first time they have all been deployed at the same time, Hernández said.

"Since they have had internet, this is the largest blackout in history," she said.

Grisel Martin, a native of the Cuban city of Matanzas who lives in Miami, said that the blackout has kept her from communicating with family there.

"The latest news I got from them was Sunday, July 11, 5:10 p.m. through WhatsApp, saying that my aunt had a fever the previous night," Martin said.

"We feel so desperate and powerless," she said.

CORRECTION (July 14, 2021, 8:39 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the business status of NetBlocks. It is a for-profit company, not a non-profit organization.