The Fall of Internet Freedom: Meet the Company That Secretly Built 'Cuban Twitter'

Eberhard had some experience with mobile text donations: It was Mobile Accord’s first business. He had also long worked in mobile phones. In the early 2000s, his first company, which marketed ringtones, sold for millions.

Meanwhile in early 2010, according to the Associated Press, ZunZuneo had already launched, and USAID had experimented somewhat with using it to assemble political affiliation information about Cuban cell users. 

But Creative Associates, its original contractor, had “decided that ZunZuneo was so popular [that it] wasn’t sophisticated enough to build, in effect, ‘a scaled down version of Twitter.’” 

So, USAID hired Mobile Accord. In July, USAID flew Eberhard to Spain to talk about a “below the radar strategy,” according to the AP. It erected shell corporations to hide ZunZuneo’s U.S. ownership.

Mobile Accord, of course, had run a social network like this before. It had even run one for the U.S. government. While there isn't direct evidence, it seems likely that the software that powered Humari Awaz was similar to the software chosen by ZunZuneo.

Meanwhile, Eberhard had become a favorite guest of the U.S. government. In February 2010, he spoke in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy there. In June 2010, he spoke at the U.S. government-backed Institute for Peace on mobile banking in Afghanistan. The next year, he spoke at the State Department’s tech conference and a State Department event in Tunisia.

It’s useful to return to Clinton’s speech at the Newseum to help understand why. The U.S., she said, had a responsibility to protect freedoms of expression and access on the Internet, a 21st-century extension of America’s history of protecting speech rights abroad. She cautioned that the Internet and other “new technologies” did not inherently radiate goodness, but that they could be useful, liberating tools if shaped by benevolent American power:

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. 

Not only was such a strategy right for the U.S., she held, but it was smart, wise, efficient.

“[P]ursuing the freedoms I've talked about today is, I believe, the right thing to do,” she said. “But I also believe it's the smart thing to do. By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities.”

Freedom to connect as foreign policy: Not only true to the spirit of the First Amendment, but a job creator too.

How would the State Department go about these goals? Clinton pledged:

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely.

In January 2010, this was the avowed diplomatic program of the United States: to create and fund social network-like software in nations that censored their media. This was what 21st-century statecraft would look like.

***

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro uses a cell phone in February 2012 (Reuters)

That was the State Department’s program in 2010, at least. By January 2011—seven months after Eberhard and Mobile Accord were brought in—USAID and its initial contractor, Creative Associates, were getting antsy. ZunZuneo seemed successful, but Mobile Accord needed to make it sustainable or independent. As the AP reporters put it:

The operation had run into an unsolvable problem. USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.

Creative Associates gave Mobile Accord a bad evaluation. Mobile Accord suggested starting to offer advertising on ZunZuneo, but “even with projections of up to a million ZunZuneo subscribers, advertising in a state-run economy would amount to a pittance.”

By March 2011, ZunZuneo had 40,000 subscribers. Mobile Accord started capping its membership, so as not to attract the attention of the Cuban government. It began looking for new leadership which could take over the ZunZuneo project.

“The ZZ management team will have no knowledge of the true origin of the operation; as far as they know, the platform was established by Mobile Accord,” a company memo said, according to the AP. “There should be zero doubt in management’s mind and no insecurities or concerns about United States Government involvement.”

It does not seem like Mobile Accord found a solution. According to the AP, by mid-2012, ZunZuneo began suffering service outages. It didn’t work all the time. Later that year, it went offline for good. The money had run out.

***

In 2010 and 2011, the White House, the State Department—the entire apparatus of American diplomacy—pushed an Internet freedom agenda. American interests, they said, were advanced by the penetration of networked tech abroad.

Then the U.S. government got into being a tech client and discovered it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. ZunZuneo’s story is that of hundreds of other startups in 2011 and 2012—ZunZuneo just happened to be supported by the U.S. government. ZunZuneo’s monetary supporters weren’t the only ones who, in 2011, discovered that they’d backed a product with no clear monetization strategy, nor were they the first to panic and look for an exit.

(I also adore that ZunZuneo couldn’t run text ads because ads mean very little in a state-run economy. Surveillance-based web ads don’t work everywhere!)

The story of ZunZuneo foreshadowed, too, developments that would come. Who did ZunZuneo benefit most of all, eventually? Cubacel: The Cuban government’s state-run mobile monopoly which owned the physical infrastructure through which ZunZuneo messages traveled. USAID, in trying to harass the Cuban government, wound up financially supporting it. As the world has learned in the past year, you can’t talk about freedom of expression online without talking about the integrity of the infrastructure that channels that expression. Over the past year, Americans have learned how much of our own Internet infrastructure is compromised.

A man talks on his cellphone on a Havana street in 2012 (Reuters)

Mobile Accord has since moved on to a new line of products: They have an expanding business surveying people in central African and Asian nations by SMS. They also still offer their text donation service, which processes about 85 percent of donations-by-text in the U.S., according to Gutterman.

Mobile Accord’s future business lies in developing huge databases of mobile phone users outside of North America and Europe. Gutterman told me they have about 120 million people in their database, and that it’s especially good in 15 nations, including Kenya, Uganda, and Pakistan. While their business depends on their close work with mobile carriers throughout the world, he said people increasingly sign up for its database by word-of-mouth—Mobile Accord will often offer airtime or free texts in exchange for survey responses.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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