By Alberto C. Toppin (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – In early September, users of Chinese brand Xiaomi cellphones began to experience sudden blocks on their devices in Cuba. A notification appeared on the screen that explained this was due to company policy, as it doesn’t allow for the sale or supply of this product in the country where it has been activated. A code was also provided for unblocking the phone, but when users went into the WIFI connection section, the cellphone didn’t provide an option for users to introduce this code.
This incident began to raise concern among the community of Cuban users of this brand. According to ETECSA statistics, Xiaomi was the ninth supplier of phones used as cellphones by the end of February 2020. However, the online traffic analysis website Statcounter Global Stats reports that 18.27% of Cubans accessing the Internet in August 2021, had done so with a cellphone from this Chinese brand, which ranked second according to data collected.
Days after the blocks began – and just a few hours after hundreds of Cuban users took to Twitter to ask that this restriction be lifted -, Xiaomi continued the authorization so that their devices could be activated. According to a company statement to Chinese media outlet “Global Times”, the decision to refuse support for their devices in countries such as Cuba, China, North Korea, Sudan and the Crimean Peninsula (regions under US sanctions), “are not targeting any specific market.”
How were Xiaomi phones blocked in Cuba?
While these blocks may seem random at first glance (some users weren’t blocked, even when they recently updated the mobile operating system), there were patterns that make you think that the affected were phones that had been activated in Cuba.
According to a report by tech channel iTecnoGeek, at least eight Xiaomi cellphone models were reported on social media to have been blocked. The devices had been used for less than a month and belonged to lines launched in the past two years.
Blocks happened when devices were automatically connecting to Xiaomi servers, to look for system updates. However, it still remains a mystery as to why devices from 2019, for example, weren’t blocked when they were updated on Android.
Even though the company didn’t give an official response in the first few days, Xiaomi Spain’s Twitter account wrote to user Alejandro Morgado that devices were being blocked in line with the product’s terms and conditions, especially section 14.2.
In this section, it stipulates that “every Product sold is subject to the applicable export control regulations, including but not limited to the US’ export control regulations and the Buyer’s own jurisdiction.” Since early 2018, the terms and conditions that outline Xiaomi’s policy have been subject to US law, although half-way through this year, it specified that Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan and the Crimean Peninsula would be prohibited areas.
Between 2018 and August 2021, not a single block had been reported of a Xiaomi device in Cuba, but the brand grew significantly more popular, especially among users who use their cellphones to connect to the Internet.
The company declared that the blocks were part of an inter-regional effort to prevent smuggling via the gray market and to protect information security; however, the users affected came mostly from countries that have restricted trade because of US law. Beyond Cuba, the same blocks were reported in Syria, over the same period of time.
UnlockXiaomi, Cuban Twitter campaign
After an audio meeting between influencer and tech expert Eric Garcia Cruz with programmers, technicians and technology enthusiasts, on Friday September 10th, hundreds of users began to tweet with the hashtag #UnlockXiaomi to demand that the Chinese company allow their devices to be unblocked.
The campaign was completely spontaneous and brought together supporters of the brand not only in Cuba. Tweets posted came from Spain, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela, India, the US, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, France, Panama, the Czech Republic and El Salvador.
While no official response was given in the beginning, there were approximately 3300 tweets and retweets of the hashtag #UnlockCuba, between Friday September 10th and Monday 13th. 1241 users posted.
What can be done to prevent future cellphone blocks by a company?
The problem with Xiaomi has been solved for now, and you can unblock your device by connecting to the Internet, but there is a small risk that a similar restriction may happen, and not just by this company.
Just like Xiaomi, companies such as Samsung, Huawei, BLU and Motorola (the most widely used in Cuba, according to ETECSA and Statcounter Global Stats) have said that their user conditions respect current export restrictions in some countries such as the US. Such a detail could be exploited in the future to deny certain services to users based in countries such as Cuba.
The reason lies in the fact that when a cellphone device is purchased, you are buying all of the hardware (the physical part), but the software (for example, the version of your operating system) continues to belong to the company. A limited and revocable license is issued, which is generally stated in the Conditions of Use, so that the customer uses the software.
Faced with the problem, and given the fact that Android is a collaborative system, we recommend that you make two key changes on your device: unblock the bootloader (if yours is blocked) and install a personalized ROM or memory card.
The bootloader is a software that allows you start up the device’s operating system. Suppliers such as Xiaomi don’t allow this in their default settings, so as to prevent the installation of malicious software.
Unblocking the bootloader can be done by going to your phone and Internet settings. The TuAndroid community on Telegram tells you how to do that.
In terms of installing a personalized ROM, it’s a matter of putting on a version of Android on the device, but doing this independently via a source code provided by Google. That is to say, just like Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei have their own version of Android, a personalized ROM is an alternative Android developed by independent programmers, with open code a lot of the time.
Personalized ROMs are also an option for devices whose software updates have been disabled by the supplier. LineageOS is one of the most well-known distributors of personalized ROMs.