Online Syria,Offline Syrians
In the first quarter of 1963 Syria's National Council for Revolutionary Command issued military order 2 "declaring the emergency state in all Syrian territories starting from the 8/3/1963 until further notice."
For more than 46 years since that datethe "further notice" has not seen the light. Syria's state of emergency and its enforcement laws are the oldest and longest running in the world. Nevertheless, Syria's government-owned newspapers, which make up the majority of Syrian newspapers, surround citizens with headlines praising Syria's democracy and freedom although the imposed state of emergency means that Syrian activists and government opposition continue to be subject to unfair trials which lead to their imprisonment.. The few months of openness following Bashar al-Asad's succeeding his father to power were no more than an exception that affirms the rule.
The Telecommunications and Internet Sector
The number of Internet users in Syria reached about 30,000 in 2000 and increased by over 100 times after only nine years. During this period the conditions for receiving Internet services changed dramatically. Previously applicants were required to submit a copy of their ID, submit a filled out application form to the customer service center including their names, their parents's names, the number of the government-issued ID, date and place of birth, profession, username and password.
The situation is very different now. Any citizen can subscribe to the pre-paid Internet service by buying a pre-paid card from any bookshop to telecommunications store. The cards contain user instructions that do not require the registration of user data User data are already registered in their land line contract information.
The number of Internet users currently exceeds 3.5 million , about 16.7% of Syria's population of 21.7 million and nearly equal to the 17% land line owners ; as most Syrian users depend on dial-up Internet connections. However, it would be wrong to assume that the Internet user:line ratio is 1:1. In 2007 only 8.7% of Syrians had personal computers indicating that a considerable number of Syrians accessed the Internet from internet cafés.
Broadband subscribers reached 11,100, an extremely marginal percentage of only 0.05% . The ADSL service is the hardest to obtain and the most expensive in the Middle East . Cell phone prevalence is weak, as well, reaching about 33.24%. In 2009 two mobile carriers started providing Internet services via mobile phones (3G). However, the number of users is still very limited.
The Syrian Organization for Information (SOI, Al-Oula) and the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) control Internet services in Syria. In 2005 the first private Internet Service Provider (ISP), AYA, was established. Other private companies followed, such as Sawa, Elcom, Easyzone and Zadnet.
ISPs operate by virtue of a tentative memorandum of understanding they sign with STE through which they acquire bandwidth and portals. The number of ISPs now reached nine companies . Their description as "private" companies does not mean they are independent. They operate as service retailers, buying the service from STE to give them commercial names then selling them to customers .
This policy had two important results. All ISP connections, including Internet access via mobile phones, go through two government portals: SOI and STE. The authorities played an important role in centralizing the Internet's infrastructure to facilitate censorship. Morever, the number of Internet users is rapidly increasing while the Internet infrastructure only experienced slight development. Thus, despite the apparent increase in ISPs, they all use the same infrastructure. The infrastructure built to serve 200,000 users is currently supplying 17 times that number. As a result, connections are continuously disconnected and it takes endless attempts and patience to connect . It also causes many bottlenecks and slows down the net. This situation has become familiar to Syrian Internet users. It is very difficult to send emails larger than 1 megabyte.
Syria has connected to the Internet through a 239-km marine cable through Cyprus since 1995. The cable capacity is extremely limited at 622 Mbps. In November 2008 STE and the Cypriot Institute of Communication signed protocols to upgrade the cable, increase the capacity (bandwidth), in addition to making a feasibility study for a new marine cable. These protocols, however, have not been implemented yet .
The ADSL service was introduced in 2003 at extremely high prices. Though the prices have been considerably reduced since then, the use of ADSL is still very limited for two reasons. The absence of sufficient infrastructure in all areas, and the considerably high prices which render the service unaffordable to most Syrians. A connection of 1MB speed costs SL3400 (approximately $70) in a country where the average monthly income is $200.
The ADSL service remained unavailable for a long time due to the unavailability of fixed Internet lines. Despite the promises of the former Minister of Communications to provide one million new lines by 2007 via the Syrian German Company, in addition to 280,000 wireless subscriptions , nothing has changed. Chinese company Hua-wi was awarded a contract to install 33,000 ADSL cables, a figure which fell short of the increasing demand.
Both GSM companies, Syria Tel and MTN, have started in early 2009 to provide Internet service via cell phones (3G internet access). However, the service only attracted a few subscribers due to its high prices of SL2000 per 1Gbyte , approximately equal to US$40 per 1Gbyte.
The use of satellite Internet access is illegal in all cases except for incoming information to ensure that all information passes through government portals. Satellite Internet access that includes incoming and outgoing data is only allowed through a legal permit and security approval .
The government makes it extremely hard for those wishing to establish Internet cafés. Owners must obtain the approval of both STE and the Ministry of Interior. Moreover, café are required to obtain user information .
Censorship and Blocking Policy
Syrian government Internet censorship is no news. Blocking and filtering websites is a common practice. The Syrian government has extended the list of blocked websites since the end of 2008 . The authorities do not deny blocking Israeli, fundamentalist Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood sites, as well as Kurdish sites that demand Kurdish national rights . As a result, most Syrian Internet users exercise self-censorship. This includes refraining from writing and commenting on the Internet or visiting any of the blocked websites .
Open Net Initiative (ONI) annual report research results, published in July 2009, show that websites containing political content, ways to evade government censorship or safe browsing techniques are completely blocked. Meanwhile, according to ONI's report, websites dealing with sensitive topics, socially or for security reasons, are selectively blocked by security . Website blocking measures of are far from transparent. In addition, none of the Internet service providers disclose information about their blocking and filtering policy.
Syrians use proxy websites and several ways to access blocked websites, preferably at Internet cafés . Authorities use a program purchased from a Canadian company, Platinum Inc , to impose Internet censorship and control. The software suggests blocking certain websites depending on key words found on the sites. It also performs deep packet inspection on incoming and outgoing information through both government portals where all "undesired" content is blocked or filtered.
Since 2005 the Syrian government adopted a policy of encouraging and supporting pro-government websites in an attempt to spread the government's point of view on the Internet. The coverage on these websites depends for information on the official Syrian News Agency, SANA. Examples of these websites are Syria News, Al-Gamal, Sada Suria and Sham Press. These websites are usually recommended to foreign reporters by ministries and officials .
On 18 November 2007 the famous website Facebook was blocked in Syria under the pretext that Israel uses it to infiltrate Syrian society. Syria's official newspapers led a campaign against Facebook describing it as an Israeli network . Afterwards, in 2008, the government blocked the famous Arabic blogging website Maktoub.
By the end of 2008 website blocking increased. Syrian, Arab, and international websites, especially those popular among the youth, were blocked. Among the 225 blocked websites were YouTube, Blogspot, Amazon and Skype. According to a survey conducted by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, more than 225 websites have been blocked.
Not only did the authorities block websites, but they have also managed to close many websites through threatening and pressuring their owners. Miraat Suria (Syria's Mirror) and Syrian Life have been closed "voluntarily" in 2006 and 2007 respectively .
First Lawsuit against Blocking in Syria
Appeals by website owners against the government is almost impossible because the website blocking policy lacks transparency. None of the blocking decisions were taken by a court order and the body responsible for blocking websites is usually unknown.
Nevertheless, on 6 November 2007 lawyer Abdullah Al-Ali, owner and administrator of Al-Nazaha site, filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Telecommunications and Technology with the Damascus Administrative Court requesting that his site be unblocked. Al-Ali received an official response (number 11939/42/H) from the Ministry stating that Al-Nazaha site was blocked in accordance with order of branch number 225 in the incoming fax dated 3/10/2007 . The body responsible for the blocking was no longer a secret. "Branch number 225" is the branch responsible for the military telecommunications network affiliated to military intelligence. This was the first time the Syrian government admitted that military intelligence is responsible for blocking and censoring the internet.
Internet Prisoners in Syria
Although, Syria's Constitution grants citizens freedom of expression and there is no law regarding e-publishing, the Syrian authorities continue to pursue and arrest Internet users for what they publish on the Internet. The Syrian government relies on the Syrian Penal Code to suppress Internet users' freedom . More than 20 prisoners of conscience are in jail for having published their opinions on the Internet . This led the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to rank the Syrian government third on its list of the ten worst governments in treating bloggers .
There are 11 prisoners detained in Syrian prisons merely for having expressed their opinions on the Internet. Seven of these prisoners are serving sentences between five and seven years for administering the blog Al- Dameer Al-Souri . Another prisoner, blogger Tarek Byassi, was sentenced to three years. Another blogger, Kareem Arbaji, was sentenced to three years for "publishing false news". The prisoners also include the two writers Firas Saad (sentenced to four years) and Habib Saleh (sentenced to three years). This is the third time that Saleh is imprisoned; two of which were for e-publishing .
On 27 February 2008 writer Osama Edward Qario was detained for nine days for an article he had published on his blog. He was released after being forced to close his blog . In March 2008 writer Mohamed Badee Dak El-Bab was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison, also for having published an article online . In August 2008 lawyer Abdullah Al- Ali, owner and administrator of Al-Nazaha news site, was arrested for 12 days. This was after Al Ali filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Telecommunications and Technology requesting that his site be unblocked. He, too, was only released after being forced to close his site
Internet Users' Privacy and Safety in Syria
Syrian Telecom homepage announces that "communications and information technology are confidential and no one is allowed to access their content, except in cases permitted by the laws and regulations and in accordance with a formal request submitted to the relevant authority" .
However, this cannot be further from the truth. Anonymously comments on websites, example of privacy on the Internet, is prohibited by direct orders from security bodies and officials.
On 25 July 2007 former Minister of Telecommunications Amr Salem announced a decision by the prime minister stating that all website administrators were required to "publish the names of article authors and those posting comments clearly and in detail.". Failure to comply with this exposes administrators to penalties and inability to access their sites.. Second time violators risk a permanent ban. On 18 September 2007 the ministry carried out its threats blocking Damas Post news website for 24 hours .
In March 2008 security officers verbally ordered Internet café owners to register all visitors' data and to keep daily records of each client's full name, mother's name, ID or passport number, the number of the PC used and the log in and log out times. Café owners were forced to hand in these records to the security authorities .
The arrest of Internet café clients is not unfamiliar in Syria. The authorities demand that owners spy on clients and report those who browse "undesired" content. In late 2006 Ahd Al-Hindy and a relative were arrested in a Damascus Internet café. They were released after a month . In February 2009 the correspondent of Menassat site was arrested in an Internet café in Hems and was released after several hours .