At first glance, ZunZuneo had all the markings of your average Silicon Valley startup: a silly name, a focus on messaging and plans to make a splash abroad. That wasn't exactly the case though, as the Associated Press reports. No, ZunZuneo was a social messaging service (think of it as Twitter over SMS) cooked up by the US Agency for International Development to help foment political unrest in Cuba. The plan? To hook users on a steady stream "non-controversial" updates on banal topics, before subtly injecting political messages into the mix in hopes of sparking a movement.
The AP says that some 40,000 unsuspecting Cubans used the service in its heyday, but it suddenly went dark in 2012 when it ran into the problem most startups inevitably do: It ran out of money. In a bid to polish its veneer of legitimacy, USAID apparently had a sit-down with Jack Dorsey to discuss funding and attempted to install an outsider as CEO. This situation, while utterly fascinating, is loaded with questions. Was it legal? The USAID argues it was -- a spokesperson told the AP that a congressional investigation found the organization's programs legally bueno. Was it ethically questionable? That's another story entirely. ZunZuneo's mass messaging was valuable in a country where internet access is limited at best, but Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) lays out the issues nicely:
"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a US government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the internet, was arrested."