The three big questions on Syria’s Internet blackout

November 29, 2012

Source: Akamai Technologies

This morning, an entire country was effectively cut off from the Internet. Web traffic in and out of Syria dropped to zero abruptly, a drastic development more than a year into a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Cellphone service also appears to be partially down, according to the BBC, and there are reports that the Damascus airport has been largely shut down, as well.

Both Egypt and Libya imposed Internet blackouts last year as measures against their own uprisings. In some ways, it is surprising that Syria has waited this long, given the horrific violence of the past year. That may be in part because the Syrian government has been much more proactive online than other Arab governments, exploiting the same social networks used by dissidents to monitor their activities through sophisticated phishing scams and tracking software. It's also possible that some group other than the Syrian government is responsible for the blackout, though given its speed and scope, it's not clear who would have that capability.

Here are three questions central to the Web shutdown's significance for Syria:

1. Is this blackout proactive or reactive?

In other words, is the Syrian government shutting down the Web as a precursor to some future event, or is the step a reaction to things that have already happened? The government has at times cut off connectivity in certain areas in advance of military operations there. Many observers seem to fear an impending major counterattack by the Syrian military, which has experienced a steady trickle of small setbacks. The closure of the Damascus airport is fueling speculation that the military may focus such an effort there.

It's also possible, though, that the move is simply meant to slow the rebels' recent gains, online and on the groundJames Miller at Enduring America writes: "A disconnected insurgency, and activists who cannot access each other or the outside world, will have trouble galvanizing their supporters or organizing the final push. Meanwhile, if bad news can be hidden away from Assad's own soldiers, defections may not increase as much as they would otherwise."

2. How long will it last?

Egypt's Internet shutdown, which occurred in early 2011 just as the country's uprising was picking up steam, lasted only a few days, possibly because the blackout risked provoking greater sympathy for the protesters. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is probably not too worried about that – after this many thousands of deaths, it's hard to imagine many people switching sides over a Web shutdown. But the blackout poses risks for the regime as well, damaging the country's already crippled economy and sapping its own ability to communicate both internally and externally. If the blackout persists, it could suggest that the Assad government is feeling increasingly desperate about the conflict.

3. Are phone lines also down?

The status of nationwide land-line and cellphone networks is more difficult to measure than is Web access. There have been anecdotal reports of intermittent phone outages, something that the Libyan government imposed in parts of the country during the 2011 uprising that devolved into civil war. It's too early to say what the implications would be of plunging an entire country such as Syria into information darkness, but given the high number of refugees, the challenges of coordinating emergency services and the already severe difficulty experienced by civilians and fighters alike in navigating the war's ever-shifting front lines and hot spots, the effects of a wider communications outage could be significant.

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Olga Khazan | November 29, 2012