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The Cuban Lesson: If You Want Free Access to Media, Use Hackers

Bad internet connections, pricey internet packages, censorship, suppressed freedom of expression and content blocking: this is Cuba. How come, then, Cubans are such a well-informed crowd? Hackers and offline social networking are the answer.
 
In the past, it was illegal to own a computer in Cuba; and it was hard to buy one. Because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, imports of technology were blocked. But in a landmark decision in 2008 when Raul Castro took over the government from his brother Fidel, he allowed Cubans to have computers and cellphones.
 
Eight years later, Cuba boasts a vibrant media content-sharing culture. But these exchanges take place mostly offline. Content from international media, which are fully blocked by Cuba’s government, is feverishly shared through pen drives passed from one to another across the country. The government has turned a blind eye to this growing system of information distribution.
 
But how do these half-secret, real-life social networks of content distribution really work? The offline world is the answer.

TV News Stations Are Now Old News

As massive batches of viewers, particularly young ones, give up watching traditional TV, the broadcasting business is rapidly crumbling. For television news stations, that is a very bad omen.
 
When direct-broadcast satellite provider Dish Network launched  Sling TV in February last year, it was eying those swathes of viewers able and willing to pay for television, but not the fat bill that pay-TV companies send their subscribers at the end of the month. For a monthly fee of US$20, Americans can access a bouquet of TV channels anywhere and on any device through Sling TV, including mobile devices and computers. They don’t have to install a hulking antenna or satellite dish on the roof of their house.
 
In mid-April 2016, Dish Network threatened that it would cut its viewers’ access to the cable channels operated by Viacom. Dish Network was reportedly irked by requests from Viacom for an unreasonable increase (“millions of dollars,” according to Dish Network) in fees for carrying Viacom-owned channels such as MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon in spite of the decreasing audiences of these channels. In the end, they reached a deal.
 
The Sling TV venture and Dish-Viacom tussle are more than business as usual. They epitomize the jouncy ride the television business is having these days; not only in rich markets like the U.S., but increasingly, everywhere. The reason: consumers, particularly ballooning young audiences, have stopped watching the television diet fed to them on TV sets.
 
That is good news for some of the fast-growing online video providers. But for the television news industry, it practically means its demise.

Big Brother is Getting Smart

In George Orwell’s 1984, telescreens could capture any sound “above the level of a very low whisper.” Today, that gadget exists. For independent journalism, smart TV is not necessarily bad news: provided it’s not found its way into the wrong hands. 
 
Imagine this: you and your wife sitting comfortably in your living room watching the primetime newscast, followed maybe by an evening series and then a late night political talkshow to learn more about who’s fighting in the upcoming mayoral elections. You might loudly curse a politician you see on one of these programs, go to the loo during a commercial break and frown when you learn from the TV that the government is imposing yet another tax on your income. 
 
These days, if you have a smart TV, which is increasingly common in many countries, you will not be alone in your room. Not only all the words coming out of your mouth, but also your angry face and the short trip to the john are likely to morph into data parcels that are shipped instantly to companies listening and watching at the other end of the pipe, which at the moment are mostly marketers and ad shops. Smart TVs, in some technologists’ view, are the final frontier for real-time interactivity. But how are they going to change journalism, news consumption and delivery? 
 
The impact there is going to be massive and come in totally unanticipated forms.