Internet in Syria Hostage to Censorship and Intermittent Service

Salam al-Saadi

(Damascus, Syria)—Rami spends many hours every day trying to surf the Internet from his home in the suburbs of Harasta near the capital of Damascus. The twenty-something youth, a law student at Damascus University, complains of the “constant interruptions of network service, its slowness and lack of effectiveness.”

“The service cut for three consecutive months about a year ago,” Rami said. “When it resumed, we noticed that the signal was much weaker than before, which makes it impossible to access certain sites except at certain hours of the day.”

The situation drove him to file a complaint with the local telecommunications office, but, “in vain, because all they did was tell me that the network was running properly, and that the bad signal during certain daylight hours was due only to the pressure of too many users at the same clogging up the network.”

These Bluecoat servers are believed to be used by the Syrian government to censor the Internet. Photo credit: Cybercov.
These Bluecoat servers are believed to be used by the Syrian government to censor the Internet. Photo credit: Cybercov.

“But where was all this pressure a year ago,” asks Rami, “when the network was running fine?”

The weak network is not unique to the area where Rami lives; most areas under regime control have witnessed a severe decline in network performance, which seems above all to affect access to social networking sites and email servers.

Qusay, 33, who studies information engineering at Damascus University and lives with his family in the Masaken Barzah neighbourhood, confirms this.

“The network is fine when you’re accessing certain sites, but it becomes noticeably bad when you try to access social networking sites, especially Facebook, or to open your email server, particularly Gmail,” he said.

Qusay says it’s become very hard it is to have a conversation via Facebook, since ones message won’t reach the intended recipient.

“This makes us afraid that the reason behind this, as well as the weakness of the network infrastructure in general, is government spying and censorship of the Internet,” he said.

Government control over the Internet network in regime-controlled areas is of particular concern to activists. Syrian activists benefitted greatly used the World Wide Web to great effect at the beginning of the popular uprising in March 2011, since it represented one of the best means of organizing meetings and coordinating activities in a country where freedom of political action is constrained and public gatherings are banned.

This is in fact what drove the government to place a high priority on monitoring the network. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a legislative decree about a year into the conflict that passed into law the “regulation of network communication for the purposes of fighting cyber crime.” The decree, according to its introduction, aims to “combat cyber crime, define the responsibilities of service providers on computer networks, characterize the crimes related to the use of information networks and impose criminal penalties on those who commit cyber crime.”

The law requires service providers to “save a copy of all stored content and keep track of traffic data to allow the verification of the identity of the persons who contribute to content development on the network.” They must also “provide any information requested by the competent judicial authorities.”

Violation of these instructions is punished with a fine amounting between 100,000 and 500,000 Syran lira, the equivalent of roughly 670 US dollars to 3,300 US dollars.

If convicted of “intentional negligence,” the penalty is “imprisonment of three months up to two years, and a fine of 200,000 to 1 million Syrian lira.”

The organization “Reporters Without Borders,” has been quick to emphasize the issue of increased Internet censorship in Syria. In a statement released in May 2013, the organization denounced the fact that 34 servers in Syria were using the services of a company called “Blue Coat.” According to Reporters Without Borders, the company’s technology is used “to analyse and monitor the activity of Syrian Internet users: to block websites, intercept emails and gather details on the sites visited by Internet users….” The organization also declared Syria as one of the countries deemed an “enemy of the internet,” in a list they published in March 2013.

The latest report on the freedom of the Internet, issued only a few months ago by Freedom House, recorded an increase in threats to activists, journalists and human rights workers, forcing them to move to areas under opposition control, which enjoy, according to the report, “a greater degree of freedom than those controlled by the Syrian government.”

But in most areas outside of regime control, there is no government network or state-run Internet service, so activists must find alternative options, like expensive satellite Internet connections.

The Freedom House report says at least seven major cities have had their Internet infrastructure severely damaged, including Homs, Daraa and Aleppo.

Ahmad Taha Abukhalil, the head of public relations at the Local Council for the city of Douma, confirmed everything contained in the report to Damascus Bureau.

“There is no state-run service in any of the towns of Eastern Ghouta, with the exception of certain areas adjacent to those under government control, which can catch signals from their rooftops,” he said.

As for how activists gain access to the network, they do so either through satellite Internet or through 2G or 3G networks, that is, through second and third generation cell phone network coverage.

As for the possibility of building a local network, Abukhalil says that “after the tightening of the siege imposed on Ghouta by government forces, and the closure of all smuggling routes, we can no longer receive any boosters for the signals or satellite devices, so while the local council has experts and engineers who would be able to build a local network, they’re lacking the necessary equipment to be able to do so.”

According to Abukhalil, the cost of building a local network before the siege was about 100,000 Syrian lira, and it has gone up after the siege to about 250,000 Syrian lira, when it’s even possible to secure it.  When the town relies on the local telecommunications networks (Syriatel, MTN), a monthly capacity of 10GB costs 5,000 Syrian lira per month. As for satellite internet, when it was available, the average price was 2,000 US dollars, for a maximum capacity of 50GB over a period of six months, with most using an Astra-brand receiver.

“Sadly,” says Qusay wistfully, “we once had a very good network, since the government developed it to get better and clearer coverage in 2010 and 2011, but then they began to put more and more restrictions on it until today we find ourselves with one of the worst networks in the world.”