Cutting Syria's Internet: desperate move doomed to failure

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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 and Renesys 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 world.

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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