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One year ago this week, shouts of “Libertad” echoed down streets and across town squares all over Cuba. Just 90 miles from U.S. soil, brave Cubans marched in unprecedented numbers for freedom – for an end to over 60 years of oppression, violence and suffering imposed by the brutal communist regime. That movement continues today.
As Cubans marched in the streets last July, they took a simple yet powerful action now common to freedom movements across the world: They took out their phones, and they started recording. The pictures and videos showing the regime’s bloody crackdown flashed across the internet instantly. The images galvanized the world’s attention on the Cuban people’s fight for freedom and on the regime’s ruthless efforts to remain in power.
The Cuban government’s response was consistent with today’s authoritarian playbook. They shut down the internet. They stopped the pictures and videos from circulating and shining a bright light of transparency on the communist regime’s conduct. They then took advantage of that darkness to arrest, jail and beat the brave souls rallying for their families’ futures.
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We have seen these same moves 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 over the internet, it weakens their grip on power – it accelerates their inevitable fall into history’s dustbin.
That is why we stood together last July in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and called on the Biden administration to give American enterprises the green light to restore uncensored internet access in Cuba.
America invented the internet and U.S. firms have the technological capability to restore unfettered internet services when rogue regimes shut it down. We made it clear that taking this step in the face of Cuba’s government-imposed internet blackouts would show our support for the Cuban people – not just through words but through action. The only question was whether the Biden administration would have the political will to take this action. One year since those historic protests, the administration has failed to act.
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That is why Congress must pass legislation that would stand up America’s strategic capability to restore internet services. Last August, one of us introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives known as the American Freedom and Internet Access Act of 2021. This legislation would implement “Operation Starfall” – a strategic plan to counter internet blackouts abroad and quickly restore internet services at home when disasters strike.
Operation Starfall would take two key steps. First, it would ensure that America can quickly restore uncensored internet services by leveraging existing technologies. Those include beaming internet service directly to smartphones from high-altitude balloons just like the FCC authorized in 2017 after a hurricane wiped out communications in Puerto Rico. That technology has improved over the past year. Other options exist, including leveraging the U.S. embassy in Havana to open accessible Wi-Fi hotspots.
Second, Operation Starfall would bolster support for technologies that allow Cubans to circumvent the regime’s internet filters – enabling them to use existing internet services. The Cuban government has not cut the island off from the internet entirely. Regimes rarely do that because they need connectivity for their own operations. Instead, they use filters that block access to social media and communications sites, like Facebook.
But there are ways around their censorship. Over the past year, almost two million Cubans have used sophisticated applications and VPNs to successfully defeat those filters. These efforts have worked, but they require further investments—both to serve more people and to stay one step ahead of Cuba’s attempts to defeat those tools. The U.S. government provided funding for these technologies before. What we need now is to provide additional support to meet surging demand in Cuba over the past year. Congress can, through Operation Starfall, and this will expand America’s capacity to deliver 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 aid Cuba immediately, we should also employ them as part of our country’s broader, strategic capabilities. After all, America has broadcasted radio content into foreign nations for decades – including into Cuba from Radio Marti and into China from Radio Free Asia. The modern-day equivalent is internet connectivity. Continuing to follow and invest in these approaches will allow us to deliver unfettered internet access to others protesting authoritarian regimes in the future.
America has a unique role in the world. We are the bastion of liberty and remain the brightest beacon of hope and freedom history has ever known. The Cuban people wave the American flag when they take to the streets of Havana for that reason. It is time that we stand with the Cuban people and implement Operation Starfall, restoring internet services in Cuba.
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Brendan Carr serves as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.