x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syria tightens control over internet

Free-speech watchdog says Syrian authorities are tightening their control over internet usage in the country.

Internet cafes are common in Damascus, but censorship has increased sharply as use booms.
Internet cafes are common in Damascus, but censorship has increased sharply as use booms.

DAMASCUS // Syrian authorities are tightening their control over the internet and shutting loopholes that used to allow access to banned websites, according to a Damascus free-speech watchdog. New research by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression suggests that internet censorship is on the rise as the government tries to keep pace with increasing computer use. Mazen Darwich, director of the independent media centre, said Syria's efforts to muzzle the net have been successful: more sites are being blocked and more controversial articles are taken offline than ever before. And in a sign that the censors are becoming more technologically advanced, a series of software gaps that existed in online controls a few months ago have been closed. It used to be a relatively simple matter for internet surfers to get around the censors using freely available programmes. Now accessing prohibited pages is much more difficult, and requires specialised knowledge. "There are clear signs that the crackdown on the internet is increasing," Mr Darwich said. "More sites are being blocked; there are more restrictions on internet cafes and there is increasing pressure from the security apparatus with daily interference about what articles are appearing online." At least 161 separate sites cannot be accessed in Syria, a majority related to opposition political parties, Kurdish groups and media organisations deemed hostile to the Arab republic. The actual number of blocked sites is much larger, including many blogs and comment sites. Many English-language and international websites that can be critical of Syria are readily accessible. It is domestic and Arabic language sites that are subjected to tighter scrutiny. In its latest annual report, the media centre said Syrian website administrators were being personally telephoned by government officials and told to take down politically sensitive material - something that never previously happened. "In the past a site would generally either be totally blocked or it would be allowed," Mr Darwich said. "Now there is a much more accurate interference." One website - called "clean hands" - set up to campaign against corruption, was shut down, apparently after a formal written banning order was issued. That decision became the subject of a legal challenge by the site administrator, lawyer Abdullah Ali, who insisted the move was unconstitutional. He recently dropped the legal case because he was put "under pressure", according to commentators familiar with proceedings. To avoid any future legal challenges to website bans, the Syrian authorities are now issuing verbal shutdown orders, the media centre said, rather than leaving a paper trail. "People running websites will get a phone call from someone saying: 'This is not good, what you're doing is not good.' It's a threat, it's an implied threat," Mr Darwich said. The internet is relatively new to Syria and has only been available to the general public since 2000, when Bashar Assad came to power. One of the first modernising reforms the technophile president introduced was to approve internet access, and the web flourished. In the subsequent seven years, internet use soared by 4,900 per cent, far outstripping the global growth rate of 249 per cent. Internet cafes, once a rarity in Damascus, are now commonplace, and the two major telecommunications firms, SyriaTel and MTN, now offer high-speed mobile internet access, although it is too expensive for ordinary Syrians. Any house with a landline can access the net using a dial-up modem and pay-as-you-go cards, a much more affordable solution although computers are still a rarity in most Syrian homes. Initially Syria blocked free web-based e-mail services, such as Yahoo and Hotmail, but few restrictions were placed on browsing, with sites belonging to radical Islamic groups and the Kurdish opposition blocked. That situation has since reversed. E-mail is freely available - although the centre warns e-mail is in all likelihood heavily monitored - while browsing is more strictly limited. Because all internet traffic in Syria must pass through two state-controlled servers, the government has the power to decide what can and cannot be seen online inside the country. A committee of officials is tasked with drawing up a blacklist of banned sites, which during the summer numbered around 100 but has since grown by at least 25 per cent. Popular networking sites YouTube and Facebook are on the prohibited list. Internet censorship is highly contested, with Syrian computer users looking for ways to hack past any limitations placed on their web browsing. While the controls used to be fairly crude, advanced new monitoring and restriction software provided by Platinum Inc has, according to Mr Darwich's centre, given the authorities here the upper hand. And activists are concerned that conditions for web users will further worsen with the introduction of a new e-publishing law. Although still in draft form it is widely expected the legislation will require all Syrians running any kind of website to apply in advance for a government licence. "If you need to get prior approval for a website, that gives the government full control," Mr Darwich said. "Internet censorship is definitely getting worse. And with the expected new law on e-publishing, we expect that to get worse still. "As the internet becomes a more important and powerful phenomenon, and becomes more influential in forming public opinion, censorship also grows. "The very essence of the internet is a space for freedom and this interference stops that freedom. They are taming the internet in Syria and they are doing it successfully." According to civil society campaigners, there is a special prison wing now dedicated to those convicted of internet crime, including people who are arrested after using internet cafes. All public internet centres need operating approval from the security services and are required to keep detailed records of their customers' surfing habits. With Syria still in a state of war with neighbouring Israel and struggling with a domestic threat of Islamic extremism, the government justifies tight internet controls on grounds of national security. psands@thenational.ae