Cuba is one of the least “connected” countries on the planet. According to the statistics, only 25 percent of the Cuban population has an internet connection. As a comparison, the percentage in Italy is 75 percent. In recent years, the government has made some efforts to ensure Cubans access to the web: in the city parks there are Wi-Fi networks and several internet cafes have opened. However, even in these places the connection is too slow and expensive.
An hour’s internet costs $1 in a country where the average monthly salary of a public employee is around $30. In Italian terms, that’s €50 per hour to connect to a modem. Despite this problematic situation, videos on YouTube, TV series and online commerce have impressively spread in Cuba. The miracle is possible thanks to a “network without a network,” a black market that physically brings digital content into the homes of Cubans and is tolerated by the government. Indeed, the “real Cuban internet” is called El paquete semanal (“The weekly package”).
The paquete is a terabyte of information distributed throughout the island on external hard drives or USB memories every Monday at low cost, between $2 and $5 a week, through an informal but extensive network. It contains information, music, videos and software for computers and smartphones that are not accessible on the island. The network was first developed in 2008 and is also important from the economic point of view. Official figures do not exist, but already in 2015 the turnover of the paquete was between two and four million, according to the BBC. According to a survey by the US television network ABC, the paquete is currently the largest Cuban employer in terms of the number of workers engaged in distributing it.
In order to understand this phenomenon more closely, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Kentucky, led by Michaelanne Dye, under the supervision of Amy Bruckman and Neha Kumar, and David Nemer, carried out field research and recently published the results, after presenting them in April at the CHI 2018 conference in Montreal, which is dedicated to human factors in interaction with computers. According to the researchers’ survey, at the origin of paquete there are only three “masters,” mysterious characters who download the most popular entertainment content thanks to expensive broadband connections and pirated satellite antennas.
The researchers tracked down one of the maestros and promised to conceal his identity in exchange with showed his antenna, hidden in a fake water deposit on the roof of a house in the center of Havana. Through these tools, out of reach for the vast majority of Cubans, Juanito saves a considerable amount of content every week: the most clicked videos on YouTube, the new installments of the Netflix series, tweets and the status of celebrities, international news, the latest version of Android or Wikipedia.
In order to avoid problems with the government, Juanito and his colleagues check that the paquete of the week does not contain pornography and content explicitly critical for the authorities. After verification, the latest edition of the hard disk is transferred to the paqueteros, the network of distributors who sell it to end users. These are shops, often built in homes but public and known by everyone, with a flashing sign. It’s there that the citizens get their supplies, USB memory: there are those who ask for the full version of paquete, those who are only interested in music for their restaurant, or those who only want a particular movie because they already have a full computer. Paqueteros satisfy them because they are not simple distributors: they customize contents, help inexperienced users and collect ads for the following week.
Indeed, an important part of the paquete is represented by Revolico, the most used Cuban site for online commerce. On this rudimentary Cuban version of eBay, you can buy and sell everything, from the home to the mobile phone to spare parts for cars. In a country where the internet is absent, Revolico thrives thanks to the offline version. The same applies to Cuban artists, especially those on the reggaeton scene. In the absence of other independent media, these artists build their careers with videos, music and events promoted through the paquete, in which thousands of fans participate.
Also through paqueteros, users provide their own content, such as commercial ads and independent information that otherwise would not circulate. Despite the caution, some satirical videos on Cuban politics have appeared, with the first effects in the country. After the socialist revolution and heroic resistance to embargo, the Cuban people capitulated to the youtubers who give life lessons from their bedrooms.
The government, however, is not indifferent to the diffusion of the paquete. “Mi Mochila,” a sort of state version of the paquete distributed through the official channels of the Joven Club (a network of educational centers dedicated to computer science), has circulated for some years now at the price of 10 Cuban pesos, less than half a dollar. But without videos, music and films that are only on the paquete in Cuba, there is no competition.
According to researchers, the paquete network reproduces the same social dynamics as the internet that travels with us over optical fiber: the decreasing cost of information, user-generated content and widespread piracy. Of course, as a digital infrastructure it is not very efficient. It recalls a time when software and encyclopedias were purchased through CDs together with specialized magazines. In addition, hard drives and USB memories have limited capacity and the amount of information in circulation is incomparably less than what we are now used to. Even the price of the paquete is low, but only when compared to our incomes because not everyone in Cuba can spend $5 a week, one-sixth of the average monthly salary.
In this sense, many users do not pay it, because the paquete is also a victim of piracy and is shared between friends and family. Having said that, El Paquete Semanal does not solve the problem of freedom of expression, because it remains subject to self-censorship in exchange for tolerance on the part of the Cuban authorities. However, emphasized the U.S. researchers, the part-human-part-digital Cuban internet also has some advantage. The USB traffic keeps visible the human factor and the non-neutral character of communication networks. In Cuba, this reminds to everyone of the importance of freedom of the press in a solid democracy.
But the message is also useful for us who, through the fast Internet, access an almost unlimited amount of messages, data, contacts. The algorithms that study the traces we leave in the network increasingly shape our image of reality. Nor are algorithms, such as paqueteros, neutral.