It appears that the Syrian government may have just taken a drastic measure it has conspicuously avoided over the nearly two years of fighting: cutting itself off from the Internet. Renesys, a Web-monitoring service, reported Thursday morning that sweeping outages in Syria had shut down 92 percent of the country's routed networks. Shortly after, it updated to report that the remaining IP address blocks had gone down, "effectively removing the country from the Internet." The "Syrian Internet Is Off The Air," it announced.
Shutting down nationwide Internet service is a remarkable step, one with significant implications for Syria's economy and security. Still, the country has already taken far more severe action, including reports of targeting children, so the government's apparent decision not to switch off Web access until now was in some ways surprising. Egypt and Libya both shut down Internet service early in their own uprisings last year. Those were seen as major steps, as is Syria's today, if the Renesys report is accurate.
Still, maybe one question here is why Syria didn't do this sooner. Its uprising long ago exceeded Egypt's and Libya's in severity by the time those countries had instituted their own blackouts. One possible explanation is that Syria has been far more assertive online, using it as a tool for tracking dissidents and rebels, and sometimes even tricking them into handing the government personal data using phishing scams. President Bashar al-Assad has a background in computers, unlike the much older Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, and once even directly mentioned his "electronic army." Assad's regime may have seen opportunity as well as risk on the Web, where perhaps the Egyptian and Libyan authorities saw primarily a tool of the uprising. Or, perhaps the Syrian simply feared the economic consequences of an Internet blackout, or lacked the means to conduct it.
The Syrian government has not claimed responsibility for the blackout, so it remains possible that another group or actor is responsible, although it's not clear who would have the capability to close down Internet access so widely and rapidly.
Perhaps the most important question is whether this reported shutdown represents a setback for the rebels and activists who have used the Web to coordinate, a sign of the regime's desperation that it would take this measure, or maybe even both.
Update: The Associated Press says that a second web-monitoring company is also reporting a complete shutdown. That firm, Akamai, provides this chart showing the severity and immediacy of the blackout: