Syria successfully shuts off the Internet
Last Updated: 171 days ago
Most of Syria disappeared from the Internet late this week.
Web companies and analytics outfits began to note that most of the digital addresses assigned to the war-torn nation had gone silent. By the end of Thursday, 92 percent of the networks in the country were experiencing an outage, according to data from Renesys, a firm that examines connectivity across the globe.
James Cowie, the company's chief technology officer, said Syria had become unreachable, "effectively removing the country from the Internet."
A startling visual from Akamai, another leading Web analytics firm, showed the digital traffic plummet to zero instantly, like electricity during a power outage. Cellphone service was also reportedly disrupted, but it was unclear to what degree.
Google noted that all of its services -- search, Gmail, YouTube among them -- were inaccessible to people within the country. A spokesperson says the only other time the company has seen this type of disruption was in Egypt in January 2011 during the Arab Spring. (During the fall of Moammar Khadafy, Libya also shut down much of its Internet.)
To Americans, the Internet is an omnipresent digital portal. There's no switch or red button on the wall. So how does a government just shut it off?
In the classic analogy of a highway, the Internet has points where the information exits into a particular country. Electronic checkpoints allow one country's exit to interface with the greater Web highway, like the stoplight at the end of an exit.
If the country's Internet service provider -- a private business that manages the nation's network -- barricades the exit, the country loses connectivity with the rest of the world. For a time, all 84 of Syria's Internet protocol "blocks" -- digital streets and addresses set aside for specific countries -- were unreachable, Cowie said.
Few outside of Syria know the exact sequence of events that led the country to go dark. But, it's probably as simple as a phone call or two from someone in authority.
Syria has one Internet service provider, Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (Syriatel). In light of the advancing rebels, a call from President Bashar Assad (or one of his staff) could tell Syriatel to turn off the Internet.
This is not unlike what the world saw when Egypt cut off access in 2011. Wired noted that when the country went digitally silent, it wasn't in one fell swoop, but staggered over a short period of time. Egypt has more than one telecom company. The cascading drop in Internet activity -- to zero -- likely reflected the government phone calls to each of them.
But there is still some connectivity to Syria. Keeping the highway analogy, Dan Auerbach, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks it is most likely that Assad told Syriatel to close all digital roads into the country -- except the one leading to government addresses.
"It's not quite the super-duper kill switch of total darkness," Auberbach says.
An Internet shutdown of Syria's proportions would be very unlikely in the United States, says Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
He believes American law allows for enough pushback against enforcement agencies that any orders would be held up by the courts.
But if ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T didn't want to fight the government in court, they could, in theory, comply with an order to turn off the Internet, noted Ryan Singel, Wired editor, pointing out that the National Security Agency is known to cooperate with federal investigators.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Independent-Conn., sponsored a bill in 2010 that would have effectively granted the president a kill switch, but abandoned it after public outcry.
Syria's shutdown comes ahead of a U.N. summit next week set to discuss new international rules for the Internet.
Other repressive governments have tried their own ways to control the masses with digital constraints. China has spent billions of dollars on "The Great Firewall," a sprawling network of censorship tools that filter content. Iran has gone so far as to start building its own Internet -- somewhat like a company intranet -- despite the concerns of human rights groups and skepticism from technical experts.
(Contact Caleb Garling at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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