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A year ago this week, cries of “Libertad” echoed through the streets and squares of Cuban cities. Just 90 miles from American soil, brave Cubans marched in unprecedented numbers for freedom – to end more than 60 years of oppression, violence and suffering imposed by the brutal communist regime. This movement continues today.
As Cubans marched through the streets last July, they took a simple but powerful step now common to freedom movements around the world: They pulled out their phones and started recording. Images and videos showing the regime’s bloody repression were instantly released on the Internet. The images drew the world’s attention to the Cuban people’s struggle for freedom and the regime’s ruthless efforts to stay in power.
The Cuban government’s response was consistent with today’s authoritarian playbook. They shut down the internet. They blocked photos and videos from circulating and shining a bright light of transparency on the conduct of the communist regime. They then took advantage of this darkness to arrest, imprison and beat the brave souls who stood up for the future of their families.
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We have seen these same movements in Iran, Burma and Venezuela, and we continue to see it under authoritarian regimes around the world. Dictators know that when people can communicate freely on the internet, it weakens their grip on power – it hastens their inevitable fall into the dustbins of history.
That’s why we gathered last July in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and called on the Biden administration to give US companies the green light to restore uncensored internet access in Cuba.
America invented the Internet, and American companies have the technological ability to restore unfettered Internet services when rogue regimes shut them down. We have made it clear that taking this action in the face of internet shutdowns imposed by the Cuban government will show our support for the Cuban people – not just in words but in actions. The only question was whether the Biden administration would have the political will to take this step. A year after these historic protests, the administration has failed to act.
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That’s why Congress needs to pass legislation that would strengthen America’s strategic ability to restore Internet services. Last August, one of us introduced a bill in the United States House of Representatives known as the American Internet Freedom and Access Act of 2021. This legislation would implement “the ‘Operation Starfall’ – a strategic plan to counter Internet outages abroad and quickly restore Internet services at home in the event of a disaster.
Operation Starfall would have two key stages. First, it would allow the United States to quickly restore uncensored Internet services by taking advantage of existing technologies. These include broadcasting internet service directly to smartphones from high-altitude balloons, just as the FCC authorized in 2017 after a hurricane knocked out communications in Puerto Rico. This technology has improved over the past year. Other options exist, including leveraging the US Embassy in Havana to open accessible Wi-Fi hotspots.
Second, Operation Starfall would bolster support for technologies that allow Cubans to bypass the regime’s Internet filters, allowing them to use existing Internet services. The Cuban government has not completely cut the island off from the internet. Regimes rarely do this because they need connectivity for their own operations. Instead, they use filters that block access to social media and communication sites, like Facebook.
But there are ways to circumvent their censorship. Over the past year, nearly two million Cubans have used sophisticated apps and VPNs to successfully defeat these filters. These efforts have worked, but they require additional investment, both to serve more people and to stay ahead of Cuba’s attempts to defeat these tools. The US government has already funded these technologies. What we need now is to provide additional support to meet the growing demand in Cuba over the past year. Congress can, through Operation Starfall, and it will expand America’s ability to provide reliable and secure circumvention tools to those who need them most in times of crisis.
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While Operation Starfall and this two-part plan can help Cuba immediately, we should also use them as part of our country’s broader strategic capabilities. After all, America has been broadcasting radio content to foreign countries for decades – including Cuba from Radio Marti and China from Radio Free Asia. The modern equivalent is Internet connectivity. Continuing to follow and invest in these approaches will allow us in the future to provide unfettered internet access to others protesting against authoritarian regimes.
America has a unique role in the world. We are the bastion of freedom and remain the brightest beacon of hope and freedom history has ever known. The Cuban people wave the American flag as they take to the streets of Havana for this reason. It’s time we stood with the Cuban people and implemented Operation Starfall, restoring Internet services to Cuba.
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Brendan Carr is Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.