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Anxiety for loved ones as Syrian phones fall silent
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BEIRUT: Over the course of a 21-hour telecommunications blackout in Syria, Alia tried to call her parents every 15 minutes, each time hearing nothing at the other end of the phone.

When fighting got too fierce in their hometown in Homs, Alia’s family relocated to the coastal town of Banias just over a year ago, while she moved to Beirut to complete her studies. Recently though, her parents joined her in Beirut, and last week returned to Banias to collect their belongings.

Their return to Lebanon was delayed, however, by opposition reports of regime massacres in two Sunni villages in the area. At least 62 people were killed – many stabbed or burned to death – including 20 children.

“With everything that happened last week around Banias, of course you expect the worst,” she said Wednesday, before Internet connectivity returned later in the evening.

Syria’s online traffic completely disappeared at around 10 p.m. Tuesday, accompanied by the widespread collapse of cellular and landline networks.

As it did when a similar outage occurred last November, the Syrian government denied it had any part in the blackout, instead blaming faulty fiber optic cables.

Accustomed to speaking to her parents once a day, at least, Alia said this time was even harder to bear.

Before, she said, “we always had some kind of communication. If there was no Internet, we’d call, if there were no mobiles, we’d use landlines.”

Alia was skeptical of the government’s interpretation of events: “We’re in the 21st century. ... A whole country doesn’t go off the radar like this because of a technical fault.”

Jim Cowie, chief technology officer at Renesys, a company which tracks international online traffic, told The Daily Star that smaller infrastructure problems should not cause an Internet blackout of longer than a few hours:

“But once it stays down for 12 hours you think this must have been a different category of outage ... a building destroyed, or maybe a decision was made,” he said.

In Syria, Cowie explained, control of the Internet is centralized, and falls largely under the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, whereas in other countries this power is spread among hundreds of independent providers.

“Centralization is the enemy of survivable Internet,” he said. “The more diversity that you can build into the system, the better it can survive anything, whether that anything is political or technical or even something like a natural disaster. ... You need as many paths, under as many people’s control, as possible.”

In a global report last year, Renesys placed Syria in the Severe Risk category of countries susceptible to experiencing an Internet blackout, alongside Turkmenistan, Libya, Myanmar, and Yemen.

“Assuming that this was a deliberate interruption of Internet service by the government,” said Kevin Bankston, director of the Free Expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We think this is a very clear violation of every Syrian’s human rights.”

Not only does it limit the ability of Syrians within the country to speak to one another and their loved ones outside, but it makes it considerably harder for activists to get news out, being forced to rely on expensive and hard-to-procure satellite phones.

If indeed it was a government switch off, there is technically no limit to how long such a blackout could continue, experts said.

“It can last as long as the government feels politically that it can stand pressure. ... Technically there is no limit,” Bankston said.

But after a while, there might be practical or economic considerations that would render it unviable for the government for any length of time.

The government, he said, if indeed it is responsible, might “reserve it as a tactic for particular key moments.”

Ultimately though, Bankston sees such events as a sign of weakness: “I would say that cutting off your citizens’ ability to communicate with the outside world is typically a sign of desperation and a sign of an oppressive government attempting to ratchet up control.”

Indeed there were worries among activists that this latest crackdown was not some technical fault, or even a power play, but that it actually signaled a more sinister attempt to silence the rebels, and limit their ability to communicate with each other.

The last major blackout, in November, coincided with a major government push on certain suburbs surrounding the capital, and the Damascus airport. The army made significant gains Wednesday in the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, held for two months by the rebels.

Alia remembered the early days of the uprising, when the Internet and phone lines were often cut on Fridays, the weekly climax of protest fever.

“I think in part it’s to limit rebels’ communication, but I think they also do it to show people they are still in control,” she said.

“But if they’re also meaning to scare us, it’s definitely working.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 09, 2013, on page 8.
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