Why Nations Block The Web, And What May Follow
UPDATE: 1500 hours UTC Friday: Earlier we posted about the near flat-lining of Internet traffic within Syria, wondering whether Damascus was adopting a tactic tried earlier this year by Egypt. As detailed earlier this year, Egyptian authorities squeezed the Border Gateway Protocols – the road maps of the Internet into Egypt, if you will – essentially erasing Egypt from the web. (One Egyptian ISP, Noor, was not affected, mostly like as the government’s last life-life to the Internet.) It was a neat disappearing trick that, for several days, made nearly every Egyptian web address invisible to the rest of the world.
One of the key early indicators was the complete elimination of any data traffic coming out of Egypt. While data traffic has slowed to a near trickle in Syria, there still is some small amount of traffic, suggesting the BGPs are still in place. More forensic data analysis will be forth-coming, but it’s possible at this point that Syria isn’t copying Egypt, but rather Libya.
Recall that in early March, as detailed by the Internet analysis firm Renesis, Internet traffic into and out of Libya came to a near halt. This was likely in response to a “Day of Rage” protest that organizers had been planning there, similar to what was planned in Syria for Friday. But as James Cowie makes clear, a near-halt isn’t a complete halt, and had Syria erased it’s BGP pathways, like Egypt, all web traffic would have been impossible. Although it’s still early, there are signs now that the Syrian Internet, while crippled, is still alive.
In his latest post, Renesis’ Cowie notes that while 2/3 of Syrian sites are down, a full third remain active. These are nearly exclusively government sites – for example, writes Cowie:
Further analysis shows that all mobile 3G access has been severed – suggesting that Syrian authorities found mobile devices to be a great threat than just the web. So in the end, it may be that Syria is copying parts of Egypt, and parts of Libya, into something altogether different.
It has been a difficult week in Syria – just the latest in a string of difficult weeks.
The week began as shocking video began circulating of the death of 13 year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. The young boy had been arrested late in April at a protest in the southern city of Jiza, but only with the release of the video was his fate known. Images of the boy’s brutal torture and death galvanized opponents of President Bashar al-Assad and provided a new, if disquieting symbol for reformers.
Meanwhile the Syrian army appeared to escalate their crackdown on protests, with news reports of as many as 96 citizens killed this week alone in conflicts with the military. Outside Syria, on Thursday, opposition groups wrapped up a two-day meeting in Turkey with new demands that President Assad and his government step down immediately. One of the participants, Milhem Droubi with the Muslim Brotherhood, said earlier demands for reforms were no longer enough, insisting Assad and his government had lost all legitimacy.
Friday had been scheduled as yet another day for national protest following prayers – just the latest in a long string of “Days of Rage” protests across North Africa and the Middle East. Friday protests were billed as “Children’s Freedom Friday” in memory of Hamza and all the other youths detained or beaten in the turmoil. Given the emotions provoked by the video, these protests were widely expected to be among the largest yet seen.
So perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that early Friday morning, Syrians began reporting that Internet access had been cut.
“Internet cut off in #Damascus at 3am, not surprising given its Friday #Syria“, tweeted independent journalist Alex Page. Soon similar tweets began pouring in – all reporting patchy or absent Internet access. Amira Al Hussaini, with the non-profit free-speech advocacy group Global Voices, began collecting a number of the tweets and other digital updates from inside Syria. News agencies like VOA are challenged to confirm the exact scope and extent of the Internet blackout, but Google’s most recent Internet traffic report from Syria clearly demonstrates a sudden and near complete falloff in data traffic.
As of 13:30 hours UTC Friday, there are unconfirmed reports that nearly all of Syria is experiencing a web blackout. If true, that combined with the cratering of Syrian data traffic suggests Damascus may be emulating Egypt’s tactics in trying to erase the nation from the web.
Earlier we had written how Syrian authorities appeared to be using the Internet, and the social networking Facebook in particular, to gather private information about protest organizers and perhaps sabotage their plans and networks. Some had speculated Syrian authorities were more interested in trying to exploit security gaps in the web and social networks in an effort to block or short-circuit opposition groups and reform advocates – a more surgical approach.
However it now strongly appears that, when it comes to the Internet, Damascus has thrown away the scalpel and opted instead for an axe.