As Cuba sluggishly got its population online, the shadow internet developed by volunteers provided a lifeline for thousands of people.
Sometime in 2010 or 2011, José Javier Mena Mustelier’s friends invited him to join a Defense of the Ancients battle in eastern Havana. His compadres recalled a sort of LAN party, at which young people gathered on a local network to play pirated video games together. At the time, getting an internet connection in Cuba looked like a distant dream. The United States’ economic embargo had made it nearly impossible to find routers and other equipment, while the government kept a close watch on the circulation of information. Cables scattered throughout buildings created small, hyperlocal intranets. But they rarely went beyond the neighborhood.
Back then, a Cuban citizen could legally buy a computer but not network equipment. Internet service was expensive and slow; only around 16% of the island’s population had access to the web in 2011. (Nowadays, monthly use of even the slowest private Wi-Fi connection comes to 120 convertible Cuban pesos a month, nearly four times the average Cuban salary.) As a response, in 2011, a group of more than 100 Havana residents decided to unify their hyperlocal networks into a larger structure.
The Havana “street network” (or SNET) would soon become one of the largest such community networks in the world. At its peak, user estimates hovered around 100,000 IP addresses. Isolated from the internet and beyond the government’s control, young Cubans set their own terms on forums, social media platforms, and local websites. During the network’s decade-long golden era, it offered a rare example of citizen and community exchange in a country where the state carefully controls communication, until the state finally took it over. To many users, SNET’s amateur, volunteer intranet provided a better service than the network the Cuban government ultimately replaced it with.
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