Guest post on learning about computers in Cuba

This 1991 note, in which Fidel Castro writes that he feels envy, hangs in a frame on the wall of the Youth Computer Club (YCC) headquarters in the one-time Sears building in Havana. Fidel dedicated the headquarters and supported the Youth Computer Clubs, where kids could play games, take classes and send domestic email. The YCCs are now in 611 locations around the island and have produced over 2.25 million course graduates (adults and kids).

Alberto, who was one of the kids at the YCC in Havana, recently left a comment on the About post for this blog. Since it gives us a picture of a young person's access to computing a decade ago, I asked if I could copy it as a post and he said "yes." Here it is:

"I lived in Old Havana until 2001 – at the time, I was starting High School and recall that during my last year there my school managed to get their hands on a handful of desktop computers. Of course, internet connectivity was unheard of, but people were highly fascinated with the prospects of technology.

Access to those computers was extremely restricted, even though one couldn’t do much with them (or knew what to do with them). The room they were in seemed more like a small fortress than a computer lab – doors were locked from the outside with heavy chains and windows blocked with metal bars (despite being on the third floor of the building). Fascinating times.

Through a family friend I managed to land a basic “computer science” class at a center in Old Havana – the name of the institution escapes me, but I clearly recall it was one of those rare buildings with blasting air conditioning. That aspect alone was worth the 15-blocks walk from my apartment to the center. The class tried to teach the very basic functionalities of Windows – right & left clicks, creating a new folder, word documents, etc. I can’t say I learned much.

I did have a friend whose father was a college professor who had some engagement with Etecsa. They somehow managed to get a personal computer into their house, with dialup internet access and everything. It was indeed a very well kept secret. Sadly, most of the time was spent trying to reconnect to the internet as the connection was extremely unreliable. He went on to study computer science in Havana and today works in the field there. From what he tells me, his job is now a large waste of resources. As he describes it, “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to do work.”

On my side, it wasn’t until I arrived to the states that I truly learned to use a computer. Two years after my arrival (while still learning English), I was doing web development and running a local site centered around education and social gatherings. Two years later, I went off to the University of Chicago for Economics and continued to work on web ventures while there. To date I’ve worked on many web projects, mostly in the entertainment space and other more serious ones: (current project, under development). This service may be of interest to readers of this blog, LP.

Today I work with a group of economists at a bank in New York, but follow the topic of internet penetration closely, not only in Cuba, but in Latin America as a whole. Data from the World Bank suggest that Latam is today where the US was at the end of the 1990s in terms of internet penetration. However, the pace of growth appears to be greater than it was in the US, which makes sense intuitively given that the technology already exists – now it only needs to become cheaper and for countries to obtain the infrastructure to sustain it.

Cuba is sadly a very different story since politics plays such a large role. I suspect that the spread of internet, when it comes, could potentially lead to a shift in mentality – with a greater sense of awareness about life outside of Cuba, will arguably emerge a greater desire for change. When the day comes, I am sure tighter content filters will be implemented, but individuals will always find ways to circumvent them, as they do in China. Indeed a very sensitive topic."

If you are or were a student in Cuba, was Alberto's experience similar to yours?

Updated Cuban ICT statistics

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONE) released their annual report on Information and Communication Technology in June, 2012. The Internet-related statistics shown here indicate relatively little change. let’s consider each of them.
Number of computers (thousands)7247838%
Number of networked computers (thousands)4344708%
Number of Internet users (thousands)1,7902,61046%
PCs/1,000 capita64709%
Internet users/1,000 capita15923246%
Number of .cu domains2,2252,2853%
Mobile telephone subscribers (thousands)1,0031,31531%
% of population with mobile access7878 
The report showed a 46% gain in Internet users in 2011, but only an 8% gain in the number of networked computers, indicating increased sharing of computers in public access points or homes and offices. We should also bear in mind that Cuban Internet access is not comparable to that in the developed world. Users are online relatively few hours per month and nearly all access is over dial-up connections, making access to modern Web sites and other applications unfeasible. Most accounts are restricted to domestic traffic.

The new figures reveal a lack of investment. There was only a 3% gain in the number of domains registered in the .cu top level domain, indicating that few new enterprises or other organizations created Web sites or other network applications. The fact that no increase was reported in the percent of the population with access to mobile phones indicates little investment in infrastructure.

The most positive figure may be a 31% increase in mobile phone subscribers, but we should bear in mind that Cuba has second generation phones, used for conversation and text messages, not the smart phones that are increasingly used as pocket computers and Internet access devices in developing nations.

I understand that these figures are government supplied and definitions of indicators vary among agencies like ONE and the ITU, but presumably ONE's 2010 and 2011 methodology is the same. I'd welcome discussion of and alternative interpretations of these and other statistics.

The cost of obsolete technology

Yoani Sánchez recently posted a sad anecdote. She had just gotten away for a two day vacation, when she learned that the server at the Cuban blogger portal was down. That meant she had to return to Havana and get an English translator to contact her friend who, following instructions Yoani emailed to her, fixed the problem.

This story reminded me of a visit to Cuba in the mid 1990s -- before Cuba's IP link was established. I recall bounding up a staircase to a spare second floor office in Havana with an enthusiastic young man who proudly showed me the PC that handled international UUCP trafic and hosted some email accounts for Tinored. (It may have been Tinored system administrator Carlos Valdes, I'm not sure). At the time of that visit, we were not political, not Cubans and Americans, but confident, naive citizens of the network.

Yoani's post took me back to that day, because it sounds like the Desdecuba server is configured like that of Tinored in 1995, requiring hands-on management. It also reminded me of my school's first Web server, which ran on the desktop computer in my office. It was running Windows 3.0, and crashed a lot. I had to go to my office and reboot it whenever that happened.

Coinicidentally, I just posted a teaching note tracing the evolution of the ways we deploy applications on the Internet. It has gone from standalone PCs to server rooms, blade servers, datacenters, virtual servers and virtual servers in the cloud. I no longer worry about servers and my Web site and blogs have not been down for years.

Obsolete technology caused Yoani to miss her vacation, but, more important, it means that a generation of Cuban users and technicians are being trained on obsolete technology. The technicians are learning skills that have little application outside of Cuba today. The users do not know what the modern Internet is like so they cannot envision new applications, and trained, demanding users drive Internet innovation.

With the ALBA 1 undersea cable, Cuba has a chance to start bringing some users and technicians into the modern era. (See this earlier post). For the sake of Yoani and anyone who is still telnetting into a computer to read text email, I hope they do it soon.

Protecting yourself and others in YouTube videos

YouTube is proud to be a place where citizens and activists come to tell their stories -- stories that may otherwise go unnoticed. A study released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that YouTube is a top destination for news and that “citizens play a substantial role in supplying and producing footage.”

But this level of exposure can be risky to the citizens shooting the footage and the people who appear in their videos.

Today, we announced a new face blurring tool that represents a first step toward providing visual anonymity in video.

Of course, anonymity is never a guarantee, and people who capture sensitive video footage should consider taking other precautions to keep themselves and their subjects safe. Here are three suggestions:

1. Assess your risk. You and the people you film may face risk by posting video online. You may risk your own safety and that of your subjects while filming sensitive footage, during the editing process, and when you distribute your film online. After assessing the vulnerability you and your subjects face, you can make more informed decisions about when to film, whether to distribute your footage, and how widely you want to share it.

2. Consider other information which may give away identity. Video footage of your face is not the only way someone can detect your identity. Other factors that may be caught on video can also identify you or your subjects. Watch out for vocal identifiers, like recognizable voices or saying someone’s name on camera. Other footage can give away identity like a license plate, a name tag, or even the background scenery. Make sure that the imagery in your videos does not give away information about your location or identity.

3. Protect yourself when uploading. Consider, for example, local laws that may allow authorities to track the mobile device from which you upload. In certain countries, merely purchasing a sim card puts users at risk of tracking by government.

Over the past seven years, YouTube has evolved into a destination for citizen reporting. Along with curating projects like the Human Rights Channel and CitizenTube, we hope that the new technologies we’re rolling out will facilitate the sharing of even more stories on our platform.

Supporting the digital economy in Mauritius

Thanks to the Internet, trade has never been easier. The ability to trade goods and services online has helped companies large and small to reach a global marketplace. And the web has also enabled another important cross-border transaction: the free flow of information without restriction.

This month, yet another country acknowledged the importance of having a consistent framework for cross-border flows of goods, services, and information. Mauritius is the first African country to sign a joint agreement with the U.S. that supports government transparency, open Internet networks, and cross-border information flows.

This agreement has significant implications for Mauritius’ economy. While South Africa hasn’t yet fully embraced the Internet, the sector already contributes up to 2 percent (or $7.1 billion/R59-billion) of the country’s GDP, according to a recent report by World Wide Worx. As the Internet grows, countries that are open to the free flow of goods and information will enable their businesses to trade, negotiate and advertise freely. In the long run, these solid business practices will lead to more exports and more jobs.

We encourage more governments and industries to take action so that their citizens have access to the Internet and their businesses are able to sell goods and services across borders, with the help of the Internet.

Breaking Borders for Free Expression

Today in Nairobi, at the biannual Global Voices Citizen Media summit, Google and the group Global Voices announced the winners of the 2nd Breaking Borders Award. The award honors people who, in the view of Global Voices, are making a difference in the push for a free and open Internet.

The 2012 winners were selected by the board of Global Voices, and come from two regions in the world where free speech is often threatened — North Africa and Central Europe.

In Morocco, Mamfakinch has become far and away the most popular Moroccan citizen media portal. The name means "we don't give up" in that nation's Arabic dialect. Mamfakinch uses volunteer editors to aggregate and curate materials from its contributors. In less than a year, the site grew from a "crazy idea" to a site with more than one million unique visitors.

The other award winner was Budapest-based Global Voices cited its work in supporting press freedom in Hungary in the wake of the passage of a new, controversial media law. has worked to maintain standards of journalistic integrity and quality investigative journalism. The group, led by Marietta Le, recently fought and won an important fight for the protection of sources in Hungary.

We are proud to support Global Voices and the work they do to recognize and empower citizens’ media around the world.

The web is working for American businesses

The web is where we go to find things—that somewhere special to eat tonight, the directions to guide us there and suggestions for that one-of-a-kind present for the birthday girl. Ninety-seven percent of Americans who use the Internet are looking online for local goods and services using their computers and mobile devices.

The growth of our Internet use has naturally helped the ecommerce industry to expand rapidly over the past decade. But the web is also positively impacting brick-and-mortar businesses. According to Boston Consulting Group, American consumers who researched products online last year spent almost $2,000 actually purchasing those products offline. That’s almost $500 billion that went directly to main street retail. All in all, it’s clear that the economic impact of the web is huge; the Internet is where business is done and jobs are created.

We’re proud to be part of such a dynamic industry, and we’re committed to helping make the web work for American businesses. Through our search and advertising programs, businesses find customers, publishers earn money from their content and nonprofits solicit donations and volunteers. These tools are how Google makes money, and they’re how millions of other businesses do, too.

In fact, in 2011, Google’s search and advertising tools helped provide $80 billion of economic activity for 1.8 million advertisers, website publishers and nonprofits across the U.S. You can see the state-by-state breakdown on our economic impact website.

Take one example: King Arthur Flour, a great New England baking company. King Arthur has been a well-known local company since George Washington was President, but has recently used the web to grow into an internationally-renowned baking business. Similarly, Nebraska’s 80 year-old Oriental Trading Company shifted some of its catalog-based marketing to the web, and now sells 80 percent of their toys and novelties online. Or consider New Jersey’s Bornstein Sons home maintenance and repair contracting business, which was founded 70 years ago and recently began to advertise online. They now get one in four of their new customers from the web.

These are just a few examples out of the hundreds of thousands of businesses who are growing and hiring thanks to the web. And Google is committed to getting even more businesses online. Over the past year, we’ve been traveling the country with our Get Your Business Online program, encouraging businesses throughout the U.S. to create free websites and reach more customers. So far, we’ve worked with thousands of businesses to launch their new websites.

It’s a fact that the Internet is creating jobs and helping the American economy grow. And we’re proud to be a part of that process.