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The desperation of a failed state

Syria is offline. Networks around the world have reported the complete termination of traffic from all four of Syria’s international connections, and the US government is working with rebels in the country to restore access. The Syrian government has claimed this to be “terrorist activity” by the rebels fighting a civil war in the country, but the coordinated nature of the disconnection, and the state-controlled nature of Syria’s telecommunications networks, suggests it was a sanctioned move.

This is not the first time we have seen states take abrupt action to disconnect citizens from the Internet during periods of unrest and uprising. Egypt, Libya and Iran have all taken similar steps, while most of their neighbours apply heavy-handed Internet censorship and retain the power to summarily execute their Internet connections on a whim.

The Middle East is particularly fond of Internet censorship, under the guise of protecting citizens from offensive material. With all Internet connections routed through government-controlled networks, filtering is applied to sites and content. Recently, censorship has been bolstered by active hacking against citizens, with states capturing login credentials for social networking sites in order to identify dissidents, control the flow of information, and block unwanted activity. Some states have crossed the line into actively deploying malware against their citizens.

This is not unique to the Middle East, of course. The Great Firewall of China is the stuff of legend. North Korea is subject to an almost complete blackout. Australia is particularly aggressive among “Western” nations in controlling Internet access, and the US and UK are not far behind, with the traditional excuses of terrorism, child pornography, and copyright protection, which all sound suspiciously similar (and equally implausible) as the cry of “protecting citizens from anti-Islamic content”.

It is a growing problem. The full scale of Internet censorship around the world is well documented in Reporters Without Borders' annual Internet Enemies Report.

In Syria (and others), the abrupt termination of Internet communication is usually a final, desperate attack. Often accompanied by restrictions on mobile phone networks, it’s a sign of a failing regime recognising that discontent is so widespread that it must resort to trying a national gag to silence the population, to prevent rebels from coordinating their activity, and to limit international media exposure. With the effect on communication, emergency services, business and the media, an Internet blackout is a massively damaging attack against the population. Unsurprisingly, it usually takes place alongside widespread military action. When you are being shelled by your government, the loss of cellphone signal is just another attack.

From the regime’s perspective, it never works. It’s really just a modern, high-tech version of an underground press like the samizdat movement in the 1960’s USSR. People want to communicate, unhappy disenfranchised people doubly so. Attempting to silence them only increases the pressure. Chinese social networks, despite extensive censorship, are rife with discussions using code words to evade government snoops, for example.

In the Internet age, this is particular futile. In 1993, John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was famously quoted in TIME Magazine saying “The Net perceives censorship as damage and routes around it.” Tech-savvy users have a multitude of ways to conceal information from government eyes, including encryption, steganography, VPNs, and satellite connections. It is telling, for example, that an unauthorised cellphone recording was the only record of Saddam Hussein’s hanging in 2006 – the state-controlled media in attendance was required to obey a blackout of the moment of his death.

Although states usually fail to control Internet communications (unless they have a true established dominance like in North Korea), this doesn’t stop them trying. In most cases, sudden Internet termination is one of the final steps of a failing regime. In the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which kicked into high gear in 2010, this was particularly apparent, and Syria’s blackout is following a now-familiar path.

On 26 January 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government cut off Internet access and mobile phone services in an attempt to cripple organised protests. Instead, the protests gathered steam and two weeks later Mubarak was out.

Libya followed suit: on 18 February, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime disconnected the Internet and shut down phone networks, primarily to limit the publicity of brutal military attacks against civilian protesters. Those efforts failed – media continued to receive reports and footage from Libya, and eight months of civil war later, Gaddafi was captured and executed by rebels.

Earlier this year, Iran announced it was going to sever Internet access, switching domestic traffic to an internal network. The state has already blocked access to Google services, claimed to be a response to an anti-Islamic film hosted on Google’s networks.

Although these attempts typically fail to rescue an unpopular regime from an uprising, the motivation is obvious – the Internet was a huge enabler in other revolutions, such as Tunisia’s in 2010. In Bahrain, police brutality targeted against bloggers in Bahrain failed to stem the tide of resistance. Summary termination of all communications is the next logical step, but it’s almost inevitably doomed to fail. People will find a way.

It is important to remember that these are not ignorant nations, lacking technical expertise. The government filters are run by highly skilled, well-trained engineers, often with the active support of Western networking vendors that supply the technology and expertise to track and block users, sometimes in defiance of trade embargoes.

With all this as backdrop, now the UN is hosting a debate to discuss how governments should control the Internet (this after the Internet blackouts to protest the debacle of SOPA in the US). That’s bound to end well, right?

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