By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator
The Syrian Internet, like the country, appears to have been
collapsing into a patchwork of unconnected systems for some time. I spent time talking to Syrians tech activists this week in Tunisia before Thursday's shutdown, and their reports from the front painted a picture of two different networks.
In government-controlled regions, they said, the Internet was available, but heavily controlled. Cybercafés had mandatory ID requirements, video cameras trained on screens and visitors, and keystroke loggers whose contents were collected daily by security personnel. At checkpoints, Assad forces were said to be visually checking laptops for programs like Tor and TrueCrypt that would allow users to get around the government controls.
In the rebel-controlled areas, Internet connectivity was
shut down, and almost all external digital communication was via satellite
phone. Rebels have seized cell towers, the activists told us, but are
struggling to establish their own communications services.
Nonetheless, there's a profound difference between the Assad
regime's previous policy of attempting to control the flow of news and
information from Syrians to the outside world, and within rebel controlled
regions, and Thursday's mass shutdown, which was still in effect Friday. The
evidence from companies like Cloudflare
shows that Syria followed the same kill switch procedure as Egypt--an orderly shutdown
of almost routes within the country, managed by the government's continuing
control over the edge routers that announce those pathways to the outside
As it was in Egypt, this is a desperate
act. Killing the entire Internet stops Assad's allies from using it--as
they have with some effect, intercepting unencrypted communications and
distributing malware to opposition activists. It prevents not just anti-Assad
propaganda from leaving the country, but any information at all. It suspends
modern business communication, and any reporting.
No news, they say, is good news. But if a regime has so lost
control of its country that suspending any and all communications is better
than permitting even the smallest peep of objective reporting to escape its
grip: well, as Egypt showed, that has to be bad news for that regime.
And even such drastic steps are not going to prevent the
news from escaping Syria.
Even before the cut-off, there were plenty of witnesses
smuggling video and reports out of Syria using USB sticks. The jamming of
satellite phones is used but not ubiquitous, activists say. The reception areas
of mobile phone networks in Syria's neighboring countries reach past their
borders. Syria's technical community inside and outside the country were
already working on alternatives to the state Internet infrastructure, and that
work goes on--mesh networks, dial-up systems, and satellite phone media
centers. None of these will be able to replace the economic and social
functions of a fully-functioning Internet. But they will be used by reporters
and citizen journalists to uncover the truth. That function of an open society,
at least, will not be stopped by an Internet kill switch.
San Francisco-based CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brien has worked globally as a journalist and activist covering technology and digital rights.
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