Internet in Syria

05Apr08

dam-error.jpg Yesterday in Damascus, after checking my emails I realised that I had some messages on FaceBook so I tried to log into the popular social network website only to be greeted by a very unfriendly error message… FaceBook it seems is not welcome in Syria and the authorities have banned it, apparently after an anti-goverment group became too popular.

I had a chat about this with a few people here, and they have told me that about hundred websites were blocked in Syria. Below is a list of popular websites being blocked in Syria:

  • Some email platforms such as Hotmail and Yahoo;
  • Social networks like Facebook are banned;
  • Blog platforms such as Blogger, WordPress is said to follow;
  • Video sharing websites such as YouTube and Google Videos;
  • VOIP Skype, some sources say it is for commercial reasons, but I have also been told that it is because the technology prevents wiretapping;
  • Google earth for security reasons allegedly;
  • and Amazon, apparently this is only because people are able to order anti-government material, Iran also has banned Amazon. Are they going to ban eBay?

The list is strangely similar to that of China’s blacklist. Many other websites are blocked such as websites from opposition groups, news sites from Lebanon, sites from Israel and blogs which are too critical of the government. This corresponds more or less to what Reporters without borders 2008 report on Syria mentions as well as Open Net Initiative.

But censorship is relatively easy to circumvent and the list of blocked sites is not as exhaustive as China’s. For example, most IT professionals know how to use proxy websites. A proxy website is a website that is hosted outside a censored zone, that is not black listed and can forward content from a banned website on request. In fact, I have seen people working in Internet caf├ęs telling tourists: “Hotmail? no problem!” and quickly reconfiguring the web browser to access a proxy in Russia or elsewhere. For anyone interested, it is not difficult to find information on how to setup a proxy server – all that is needed is someone outside the country willing to install a free software to relay the Internet traffic. For the authorities, blocking proxy websites is a futile exercise as there are always more opening than closing.

Blocking email platforms and blog platforms is just as futile as there are thousands of them. When I looked for more information on Internet censorship in Syria, I came across a large number of articles explaining how to migrate the content of a blog from one platform to another for non-technical people. And just like proxy servers, there are many free programs which can be installed on servers outside the country to provide the same service: blog, email, etc… for free and undetected.

Of course, not everyone is able to do this; and the majority of people are unable to access blocked content therefore restricted to what the regime is willing to let them access. It is not surprising then, that one of the first thing people buy is a satellite dish, so get information from the outside.

For more information on Internet censorship worldwide, you can also have a look at Global Voices Advocacy.

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