Monday, October 01, 2007

WHY Does Google Censor Cuba?

A number of services offered by the grand search engine are not available to Cubans, and with no explanation given. Federal prohibitions enabling the US blockade of the island could be the key to the mystery

By: Amaury E. del Valle

The largest and most-used search engine on the Internet is marking its tenth anniversary. Over that that time it has censored a series of services, making them inaccessible in Cuba – and with no clear explanation why.

«We’re sorry, but this service is not available for your country» is the brief message that appears in English on the computer screen when anyone on the island tries to access one of the mega-searcher’s well-known utilities, such as Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Code or Google Toolbar.

The website —famous the world over for providing a simple and quick way to find information on close to 8.2 billion web pages— is consulted more than 200 million times a day. In addition, it offers its users other facilities, like searching for free or open source code, finding maps and aerial photos, locating on-line ads or finding information lost on one’s own computer. However, these options are not available in Cuba.

The computer giant
Google is considered by many to be a prototypical high-tech firm. It was founded on September 27, 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two computer science doctoral students at Stanford University. Starting up out of a friend’s garage, and with financing from family and friends, they created their site using a search algorithm that they cracked.

At the beginning, eight people made up the entire Google staff, for a while still in the garage. Later moved to a modest office, while today the mega-firm has hundreds of employees, with its central offices in California and branches in Dublin, Ireland and Buenos Aires.

With profits considered among the highest in the computer industry, it is one of the most valuable companies on the stock exchange. Recently it expanded with several buyouts and mergers, such as the October 2006 acquisition of the famous video site YouTube, for $1.65 billion, and the April 2007 acquisition of DoubleClick, a company specializing in internet publicity, for which Google paid the jaw-dropping sum of $3.1 billion.

In addition, Google is engaged in highly significant projects, among these being the development of online tools for word processing that challenge the hegemony of Microsoft Office and Windows. Likewise, it has become a world news reference service through its Google News.

To all this must be added the increasingly global vision of the virtual world enabled the launching of vital online utilities, such as those for translating (Google Translate), books and school information searches, a technique that allows one to situate their webpage in a good position for a searcher (also known as PageRank), and the creation of local sites in each country, including Cuba.

Being located in United States —and despite its seemingly liberal philosophy— Google not only complies with that country’s laws, but has increasingly strengthened its complicity with those policies.

Prohibitive listing
A simple request from a Cuban server to access certain Google services will prompt a courteous but definitively negative response from several of these sites. Among the forbidden fruits are:

  • Google Earth: A program that displays high-quality satellite-captured aerial images of locations all over the world
  • Google Sky: Since August 2007, Google has offered non-Cubans a virtual telescope that allows users to virtually peer into space.
  • Google Desktop: This tool permits the possibility of locating ones own e-mail messages, files, chats and visited web pages, avoiding having to have to organize files and messages manually.
  • Google AdSense: This is a service for webmasters and companies seeking publicity via the Internet.
  • Google Adwords: Quick and easy tool that allows the posting of ads online.
  • Google Code Search: Launched on October 5, 2006, this feature allows users to browse the web for Open Source or Free Code. This allows program developers to exchange knowledge and take advantage of the experiences of others.
: This free program allows the three dimensional (3d) design of structures.

Extraterritorial limits
The cases above constitute a mere sample of some of the programs that Google denies Cuba. What is curious is that some of these, such as Google Earth or Google Desktop, were not at first prohibited. For several months Cuban nationals could load them, something that is not possible today.

It is ironic that the blocking of other features —like Google Code Search, which supposedly promotes the altruism of free software— are in contradiction to what the creators of Google have always declared themselves to be defenders.

Some of these restrictions, such as not being able to download programs that require payment, can be easily explained by US blockade laws against Cuba, which prevent most commercial transactions with the island. However, these laws directed against Cuba can be applied in third countries, like Spain and Argentina.

In the case of the Iberian nation, for example, Google Desktop states in its «Terms and Conditions” that these “will be regulated for and interpreted in accordance with Spanish legislation and regulations.»

That would mean that the denial by Google in Spain to offer this program to Cuba could be violating Spanish laws, because there is no type of commercial limitation between Cuba and that country that prevents the exchange of products.

This same situation arises with Argentina, a country where the administrative offices of many Google are located, and to whose national laws the company is subject. Therefore the denial of some service by virtue of the American Helms-Burton Act, or any other another absurd US regulation, would be in fact a violation of the laws of that South American country.

A question without an answer
It would be absurd not to recognize that the enormous utility of Google is an indispensable tool for the acquisition and exchange of knowledge.

The Cuban government has even facilitated Google’s effort to create a customize page for the island under the national domain «cu.»

It is necessary then to wonder why the super searcher doesn't respond equally and facilitate national access to all of its benefits; or is it that perhaps Google is also blockading us now?


“If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” - Eduardo Galeano