“The line’s long but it’s moving fast,” someone tells me outside a Cubacel Office. After an hour and several shouts from the guard whom we crowded around at the door, I managed to enter. The clerk is bleary-eyed and warns me that I can only open a Nauta email account there, but “under no circumstances is the account configured for a mobile phone.” This provokes a little, “It doesn’t matter, I know how to do it, I already downloaded the Internet manual.” The little twist of the knife works because she asks me, curious, “Oh really… and could you help a friend of mine who doesn’t know how to do it?”
This won’t surprise my readers, we’re in Cuba where restrictions and chaos mix. Where the same entity that should help its clients ends up asking them for help. So I lent a hand with the friend and her email activation.
After gaining her trust, I was able to get a little information from the bored clerk. “I’m sure the Internet will be available soon on cellphones,” I let fall, just another comment. She clicked her tongue and offered, “Don’t get your hopes up,” turning to me from the desk. Then I attacked, “Well, if it’s the Venezuelan cable, I imagine the service will expand.” And that’s when the employee hinted to me, “This cable comes from somewhere else,” while putting her index finger near her eye as the signal for “vigilance.”
I go home, stumbling at every step because I’m looking at the cellphone screen where it shows new messages. First I write several friends and family members warning them that “this email @nauta.cu is not reliable or secure, but…” And then a long list of ideas for the uses of a mailbox that isn’t private, but that I can check any time from my own cellphone. I ask several acquaintances to sign me up for national and international news services via email. Within an hour a flood of information and opinion columns is stuffing my inbox.
I spend the following days searching out the details of the service, its limits and potential. I conclude that for sending photos it’s much cheaper than the previous method through MMS messaging. Before, the only option was to send an image, with agonizing slowness, costing 2.30 CUC ($2 USD). Now, I can do it through Flickr, TwitPic and Facebook through their email publication service, paying 0.01 CUC for each kilobyte. The average photo for the web doesn’t exceed 100 Kb.
Among its possibilities, is also the ability to maintain a flow of long texts — far beyond the 160 characters of an SMS — with Cubacel users who have already activated the service. In the first 48 hours I managed to create news feeds for other activists in several areas of Cuba. So far all the messages have arrived… even thought the Nauta contract threatens to cut off the service if it is used for “activities…against national independence and sovereignty.”
I also tested the effectiveness of the GPRS connection, needed to send and receive emails, from several provinces. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Matanzas I was able to connect without major problems. There are some stretches of road where there aren’t even signals to make calls, but the rest of the tries were successful.
It’s not all good news
Coinciding with the new email service on cellphones, there has been a noted deterioration in the sending of text messages. Hundreds of messages in recent days never reached their recipients, although the telephone company quickly charged for them, which points to an act of censorship or the collapse of the networks. I would prefer to think it’s the latter, if it weren’t for the fact that among the greatest failures were activists, opponents, independent journalists and other “uncomfortable” citizens.
On the other hand, let’s not be naive. Nauta has all the hallmarks of a carnivorous network that swallows information and processes our correspondence for monitoring purposes. Very likely there is a filter for key words and minute-by-minute observation of certain people. I don’t discard the possibility that the content of private messages will be published in the official media, should the government deem it appropriate. Nor do I rule out phishing to damage the prestige of some customers, or the use of information–such as emails published on social networks–to impersonate others.
All these possibilities need to be taken into account when using the new service, because there is no independence between the telephone company and the country’s intelligence services. So every word written, every name referenced, every opinion sent via Nauta, could end up in State Security’s archives. We need to avoid making their job easier.
After a week with Nauta, my impression is that it is a crack that is widening. Through which we can project our voices, but also through which we could be abducted. A poor imitation of the web, a handicapped internet, their service is very far from what we have demanded as 21st century citizens.
Nevertheless, I suggest using this new option and pushing its limits, like we have done with text-only messaging. Used cautiously, but with a civic conscience, this path can help us to improve the quality and quantity of information we receive and of our own presence on the social networks. Its own name already says it, if we can’t be internauts… at least we can try being nautas.