Monday, January 18, 2010

Summary of the Cuba IT & Social Media Summit and Live Blogging Compilation

"Let us be clear from the start,
our aim in convening this
Cuba IT & Social Media Summit
is not to subvert the Cuban regime;
it is to empower the Cuban people."

This statement was made by the organizers both at the Summit's kick off in the morning and clearly reiterated again during the closing session.

Also, at the close of the conference, the organizers addressed their invocation of Chatham House Rules (i.e. the confidentiality of participants) - an issue that I addressed in my first post about the summit and one that has drawn criticism from some bloggers (see here for one example).

Essentially, as I had suspected the use of Chatham House Rules was justified for the following three reasons:
  1. To avoid the maliciousness of those who would want to derail or misrepresent the proceedings;
  2. To foster an effective discussion of the issues involved;
  3. And to promote a frank and open discussion, allowing participants to think outside the box and entertain new ideas, positions, strategies, and approaches to Cuba without being pigeon-hold and without having those ideas directly attributed to them or their organizations or companies.
One final debate that came up toward the end of the Summit deserves special attention.  This debate arose from one of the most interesting, provocative, and counter-intuitive readings distributed to participants prior to the Summit, "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent," by Bruce Etling et al (June, 2009).

Among other things, this report asks two counterintuitive questions:

(1) Is the Internet a breeding/ recruiting ground for Islamic radicals and, more importantly for Cuba,

(2) Is there any necessary and direct connection between greater Internet connectivity/access and greater (Western style) democracy? 

On both counts, the report cautions against affirmative assumptions as the research shows that the links between the Internet and radicalization on the one hand and the Internet and democratization on the other to be tenuous at best. 

Also, while the report addressed only the Arabic blogosphere, the presentation we were privy to on Friday included some fascinating comparisons to other national and linguistic contexts such as the Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Persian language "blogospheres," as well as those of various countries, including China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and by extension Cuba.

Follow the links below to read the entire report, for now here's the pull quote:

The Internet lays a good foundation
for a battle of ideas,
but it does not necessarily
favor a winner.

For the full article this quote comes from see here (p. 10).  Also see here and here for two academic projects that focus on the connection (or lack thereof) between the Internet and democracy. And see here for the Internet and Democracy blog.
"[There is] the hope that the Internet will empower political movements that can move Arab societies toward democratic values and governance. This study supports some aspects of the view that the Internet can empower political movements in the region, since it provides an infrastructure for expressing minority points of view, breaking gatekeeper monopolies on public voice, lowering barriers to political mobilization (even if symbolic), and building capacity for bottom-up contributions to the public agenda. But we caution against the idea that these functionally ‘democratic’ characteristics necessarily travel in the company of classically liberal, historically Western, values regarding individual liberties, freedom of belief and expression, and, ultimately, secular foundations of political rights. The Internet lays a good foundation for a battle of ideas, but it does not necessarily favor a winner."
Another participant, Cuban-born Irving Wladawsky-Berger (his photo is the left), has posted his own detailed commentary on the Summit on his blog.  I'd say that the open-minded, non-ideological, outside-the-box approach of his post closely approximates the spirit of the meeting.

In summary then, the outcome or "deliverables" of the summit were the following:

  • More work needs to be done to encourage major IT companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to feature the activities of Cuban bloggers on their networks and enable them to come up more easily on their search engines.
  • More support should be provided to Cubans as they attempt to build communities of bloggers and broaden the community of voices in the Cuban blogosphere.
  • Participants were encouraged to identify 10 simple applications, hardware, software, or other IT and social media programs that are currently available on the market and figure out ways to make them available to Cuban bloggers.
  • Given that Cuba has one of the lowest levels of Internet connectivity in the Western hemisphere, participants could help Cubans by laying out a plan, model, or map showing the ways in which Cuba can move rapidly into the 21st century in terms of ICT (Information and Communication Technology).
  • Customized scalable and practical IT solutions should be developed to aid Cubans in circumventing government censorship, specifically "heavy" programs, software, and applications should be modified to make them "light," that is, more readily usable in the Cuban IT environment where extremely slow connection speeds are the norm and where the use of mobile technology is likely to be more cost effective and practical than desktop and laptop solutions.
  • Private entities and/or universities in the U.S. should research the possibility of developing relationships with Cuban universities with the aim of donating satellite equipment to enable greater connectivity for their students.  This effort should be publicized so that Cuban university students are aware that outside universities and enterprises are working to afford them greater IT access and connectivity.
  • Pressure should be placed on the U.S. government to modify existing legislation in order to facilitate greater Internet connectivity in Cuba.  Specifically, it seems that current regulations that were supposedly liberalized by the Obama administration in April, 2009, are unlikely to lead to any opening due to their overly restrictive and bureaucratic nature.  Business and other groups should meet with Congress and the Administration to push for further opening in the area of IT.
  • Participants should look into donating pre-paid mobile phone and internet cards to Cubans allowing them to text, tweet, and get on line more easily and cheaply.
  • As mentioned above, there was an awareness that greater IT capability in Cuba may not necessarily only empower independent and alternative bloggers and strengthen civil society, but it also has the potential of strengthening the regime's ability to monitor and control dissent.  

What follows below are slightly expanded versions of all five of my live blog posts from the Summit along with the comments from readers posted during the day on Friday.

Post I
Morning sessions were stimulating.  We began the summit with a surprise conference call from Havana with Yoani Sanchez (Generacion Y), along with three of her fellow bloggers, including Luis Felipe Rojas of Holguin who writes "Cruzar las Alambradas," Claudia Cadelo author of "Octavo Cerco" and Eugenio Leal of "Veritas.

These four independent bloggers were gathered together with many other bloggers all attending the bi-weekly Blogger Academy in Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar's apartment.  Each time Sanchez made one of here eloquent and impassioned declarations, we could hear the group clapping boisterously in the background.  In general, each blogger described from his or her own perspective the trials and tribulations of being an independent blogger in Cuba and took questions from us.

Since the Summit was largely focused on how sympathetic outsiders could help make IT and social media more available to Cubans on the island, I took the opportunity to ask Sanchez the following question (I'm paraphrasing my question and Sanchez's response from memory):

El Yuma: It is clear from what you have described to us that you and your fellow bloggers seek help (ayuda) from others around the world. But you have also made clear now and on other occasions that alternative Cuban bloggers such as yourselves also value your independence (independencia).

As we speak, Mr. Gross, a contractor working for a company hired by USAID sits in a Cuban jail for helping Cubans connect to the outside world. How do you resolve the dilemma between your and others' need for outside help and help coming from or paid for by foreign governments?

Sanchez: We independent bloggers depend on the help (ayuda), information (infromacion), and support (apoyo) of an entire web of people around the globe.  They help us connect, transcribe, post, and translate our blogs.  They also aid us by sharing new software, applications, and hardware - things either not available in Cuba or out of our economic reach. 

At the same time, we strictly follow a policy of independence and refuse to take donations or support from foreign governments - Instead, the solidarity we count on is citizen solidarity; solidarity that comes from everyday people like us, from people like those gathered together there today in New York at the Summit, not from political parties or governments with a particular line or agenda.

Mickey wrote: Thank you Ted for letting the rest of us outside this important event know more about what’s taking place there.

Post II
Now we're having a presentation on Obama's new telecom regulations allowing U.S. companies to invest in Cuba. Essentially the argument is that as currently written they amount to nothing, with no incentives for companies to engage the Cuban government.  Furthermore, all the same U.S. legal and bureaucratic obstacles that prohibit U.S. companies from engaging Cuba are still in the way.

Post III
Great idea: How ‘bout allowing micro-loans to Cuba?

Polo wrote: Not possible. Even a micro-loan program needs a friendly environment: strong laws protecting private property, a free market economy, etc... Something far, far away from Cuba today.

And here's "my money": I got $500 to start a business, let's say a hot dog stand.

First the CDR will send the police to know where I got my hot dogs, health inspectors asking for bribes, I will be questioned about my political views, I can't have employees, no steady supplies... And at any given time You-Know-Who will capriciously change laws and rules.

It's a night-f###ing-mare !!!

Anonymous wrote: You're kidding, right? Saladrigas has been trying to sell that idea for two years now. It's absurd. There can be no capitalism in Cuba until there are economic reforms. Otherwise you are just throwing money away. Worse, you are financing the regime.

Post IV
Another great idea: One laptop per child in Cuba

Mickey wrote: One laptop per child is quite ambitious! How many countries can boast that? I don’t know… Maybe it would be more pragmatic to shoot for one laptop per family.

Yuma, thanks again for your posts on the event.

Post V
Idea: Is an expanded internet actually beneficial to authoritarian regimes?
  • Better monitoring of dissidents.
  • Opium of the masses - potential dissidents stay at home on their computers and are not marching in the street demanding change.
  • The government can set up faux blogs in order to fool and monitor the public.
  • The government and its supporters can use the Internet as modern vehicle for its propaganda.
Polo wrote: Or the best of both worlds: Marching in the streets with smartphones and Twitter... Remember Iran !

Anonymous wrote: Anyone anything about Mazorra ...

Anonymous wrote: Information is a weapon. That's why the regime controls it. An open internet is an enemy of Castro, inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment