Tech, Advocacy Groups Join Trump’s Cuba Internet Task Force

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By Michaela Ross

Seven governmental, trade and advocacy groups will combine forces to promote and issue recommendations on internet expansion in Cuba.

The newly formed Cuba Internet Task Force, which includes the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), held its inaugural meeting Feb. 7 and plans to study technological barriers in Cuba and the role of media and free information flow in the country, a release from the State Department, which is spearheading the initiative, said. ITI represents some of the largest U.S. tech companies, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Microsoft Corp., and Facebook Inc.

The task force also includes representatives from the State Department, the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the democracy advocacy group Freedom House, the release said.

The initiative is the Trump administration’s latest attempt to enhance American companies’ opportunities born of Cuba’s economic liberalization and expand a vital information service increasingly demanded by its citizens.

Trump, in a June 2017 presidential memorandum, rolled back Obama administration policies toward Cuba and tightened a number of trade and travel restrictions. But he also issued a directive to create the task force to continue to explore internet expansion opportunities.

The Cuban government has criticized the directive, saying it is an attempt to undermine the country’s sovereign ability to regulate information flows, according to a Jan. 31 statement by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The task force, which will work through two subcommittees, will convene in October to develop recommendations for the secretary of state and Trump, the State Department release said.

U.S. internet and telecom companies jumped at the chance to deploy the internet for Cuba’s largely unconnected population of 11.5 million people after the Obama administration’s 2014 move to thaw the decades-old trade embargo between the countries. In December 2016, Google announced it had partnered with a state-run Cuban telecom provider to distribute internet servers in the country. Still, the Cuban government’s political wariness of an open internet and its lack of resources have remained barriers to a build-out.

Tech Sees Opportunities

Ashley Friedman, senior director of global policy at ITI, said its member companies’ technology could help grow the Cuban economy.

“In healthcare and tourism and education—in all the places that Cuba has strength—the internet and technology can enhance that and connect people to greater opportunity,” Friedman told Bloomberg Law.

Other Cuba watchers are skeptical.

The Cuban government has a history of mistrust in U.S. government internet initiatives, Larry Press, professor at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, told Bloomberg Law.

An illustrative case involves the arrest of a U.S. contractor, Press said. In 2009, Alan Gross, a contractor working with a USAID, was arrested and held by Cuban officials for five years after attempting to install telecommunications equipment.

The U.S. government’s involvement also could strain political relations and worsen the prospects for a Cuba internet expansion, James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses opposed to the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba, told Bloomberg Law.

“You’ve seen tremendous progress in the last few years of having basically no internet to the fastest internet expansion in the world,” Williams said. “The last thing that you want to do is for the United States government to politicize it.”

The State Department plans to allow parties interested in the initiative to submit comments and apply to join the subcommittees, Friedman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com

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