Cuba: Bloggers on SOPA, Culture and the Democratization of Knowledge

Since mid-January 2012, the proposed anti-piracy legislation in the United States Congress known as SOPA/PIPA has drawn reactions from a broad range of cultural and political perspectives around the world.

Global Voices contributors have given readers a glimpse of responses from open Internet advocates throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas (here, here and here).  Open Internet advocates in the U.S. scored a major victory in January when members of Congress agreed to withdraw the bills from consideration.

Teatro Karl Marx, by Edgar Rubio. CC: BY-NC-ND.

Teatro Karl Marx, by Edgar Rubio. CC: BY-NC-ND.

In Cuba, where very few citizens use the Internet regularly, and where the concept of a site like Wikipedia or BitTorrent remains foreign to most people, bloggers brought a unique perspective to the discussion. Unlike many SOPA/PIPA critics in the U.S. and around the globe, Cuban bloggers did not focus on the technical implications of the proposed laws. Both independent and state-affiliated Cuban bloggers saw SOPA/PIPA not merely as legal measures that would have stifled online innovation and openness, but also as a powerful statement about how legislators (and the music and film industries) value culture and creativity as part of U.S. society.

Karel Pérez Alejo, writing for Cubadebate [es] and Trabajadores [es], framed the issue as a polemic dividing “society” or “the 99%” and the laws’ strongest supporters:

Si bien algunos han analizado el fenómeno como la confrontación entre Hollywood y Silicon Valley, los millones de reclamos de los usuarios hablan de una guerra más profunda, entre una sociedad que busca manejar una información sin restricciones y un grupo de intereses que intentan seguir un obsoleto modelo de propiedad.

While some have analyzed the phenomenon as a confrontation between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, millions of users speak to a more profound war, between a society that seeks to manage information without restrictions and a group of interests that are attempting to follow an obsolete model of property.

Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula drew a connection between SOPA/PIPA and the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload (Spanish version here). Coyula argued that such shutdowns, which would likely have increased if the legislation passed, limit access to knowledge and culture for people who otherwise can’t afford it:

[US authorities], with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.

On La Pupila Insome [es], Iroel Sánchez compared the paradigm of intellectual property rights in the U.S. to the Cuban model, remarking on the ways in which Cuba’s education and cultural systems have attempted to “democratize” knowledge, making it easily accessible for all:

Cuba, con una formación masiva de profesionales universitarios….no hubiera podido desarrollar [su] capital humano sin una concepción democratizadora y no lucrativa del conocimiento…

Cuba, with its massive population of professionals in academia….could not have developed [its] human capital without a democratic and not profit-oriented conceptualization of knowledge…

Since they were introduced in the 1960s, the revolutionary government’s cultural policies have generated bitter controversies over the ideological role of artists in Cuban society. But they also have yielded a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture, knowledge, and education is meant to be open to all citizens.

However, when it comes to culture and knowledge that is created and exchanged online, most Cubans are far worse off than any U.S. citizen. For those who do not occupy high-level positions in government, scientific research, or academia, Internet access remains limited.

The Internet has become a contested space where government authorities and the official press have denounced the United States’ “cyberwar” on Cuba; the seemingly limitless landscape of culture and knowledge online is rarely mentioned in the public sphere. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use, presumably in an effort to dampen the potential societal effects of independent online political speech and economic activity.

Similar to Sánchez, Coyula alluded to the uniquely politicized nature of Cuba’s cultural policies, but cast a critical gaze on this “democratized” system for knowledge exchange. In closing, Coyula promoted the notion of an equilibrium, in which the interests of the market and the public good could be harmonized with one another:

It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.

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