Twitter wants a way into Cuba

havana-live-twitter-headquartersThe company has talked with the Cuban government about letting its citizens tweet through cheap and easy text messaging.

HAVANA, June 17   Twitter says it’s talked with the Cuban government about expanding access to its service, the latest sign of U.S. tech companies exploring digital possibilities on the island after President Barack Obama’s announcement of a historic thaw in relations.

While the tech conversation around Cuba has thus far been about building the basic network infrastructure the country lacks, Twitter says it has a simple, short-term ask: Let Cubans tweet by text message.
Story Continued Below Cuba lacks the sort of four- or five-digit number shortcut that allows users to tweet via SMS, often quite cheaply and even from rudimentary cellphones. (In much of the world, that short code is “40404,” but it varies; Mexico’s short code is, for example, “6464.”)

Twitter says its director of global public policy, Colin Crowell, has met with officials from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington — the country’s current diplomatic outpost in the U.S. — to discuss the issue.

“We don’t have a short code deal with Cuba, and it’s one of the few places in the world where we don’t,” says Crowell. “We’ve broached our desire with Cuban officials and they’re open to it, but we haven’t made a trip down there to effectuate that deal.

“We’ll follow in short order when everyone catches their breath,” he adds. “We’d love to get a deal sooner rather than later.” At least one major U.S. tech company has expressed interest in helping to do a major upgrade of Cuba’s communications infrastructure.
A representative from Google is in Havana this week, focused on “helping the Cuban government think through their publicly stated goal of improving Internet access,” according to a company spokesperson.

Twitter could be a way for Cubans to share information among themselves and with the outside world, a sea change in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranks among the world’s worst when it comes to freedom of the press.
While many of the world’s users now tweet using the website or Internet-based apps, the lack of online options in Cuba — only about 5 percent of the population has Internet access — makes that difficult for many.

But Twitter started out as a text message-based service and can still operate as one, points out Crowell. The Cuban government owns ETECSA, the telecom that runs Cubacel, the island’s mobile network, and that would be responsible for setting up the desired short codes.

It was April’s Summit of the Americas in particular, attended by both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro, that demonstrated the potential power of increased Twitter access in Cuba, says Crowell. The company saw that Cuba-related tweets were commented on and retweeted remarkably widely and often.

“The interest is quite pronounced in the [Cuban] diaspora, and in the hemisphere generally,” says Crowell. “We’re eager to do whatever we can to augment the ability of Cubans to make their voices heard. We’d love to have more Cuban voices on our platform.”