Sunday, February 20, 2011

Syria: Facebook Is Again Directly Accessible Without Proxy Servers

February 20, 2011

On February 8, 2011 Syrian internet users affirmed that Facebook and YouTube were again available in Syria. The removal of the five-year ban looked like an appeasement measure aimed at relaxing the political and social environment in the country. Presumably, the government wanted (and still wants till today) to stave off the unrest emerged after the recent political events in Tunisia and Egypt.

At the beginning of February, President Bashar al-Assad openly said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to continue with the political reforms and that in 2011 he had the targets to initiate municipal elections, grant more power to N.G.O.s and pass a new media law.

The ban related to Facebook, YouTube and other social networks had been introduced three years ago (Facebook was blocked in November 2007) as a move to reduce hostile political activism in the country. Lifting the ban seems to be an important step toward a more democratic Syria, but as human rights advocates pointed out it will be important to closely monitor the events of the coming weeks. In fact, lifting the ban could now permit the Syrian government to better monitor people and political activities through social networks websites. Facebook, for instance, requires its users to disclose their real identities and not to use false or anonymous accounts.

Debbie Frost, a spokesperson for Facebook explained that Facebook was not thinking of modifying its terms of service in relation to those countries where users may be alarmed by revealing their real name for security reasons. Susannah Vila, with, a non-profit organization devoted to supporting grassroots digital activists around the world, said that “while access to social media sites presents an opportunity for Syrians to better mobilize one another, it also makes it easier for the government to identify activists and quash protests”.  Recently, in relations to Sudan there was such a kind of worries.

In Tunisia, in December and January, protesters used the internet to gain support for their movement. They broadened the influence of their message and eventually they were successful in toppling Ben Ali’s government. Once the protests started in Egypt, some Syrian opposition groups created a Facebook page called "The Syrian Revolution 2011" ( while at the same time they initiated a Twitter campaign whose target was to invite people to join together for the “Day of Rage” rallies against the President al-Assad in the first week of February (on February 20, 2011 the Facebook members of this group are 21,636).

In the last three years, Syrians have been successful in using Facebook and other banned websites thanks to proxy servers that were able to circumvent the Syrian government’s firewall. Proxy servers vehicle internet requests through servers located outside the country. In this way they bypass the government’s firewall and hide I.P. addresses. Now, Syrian netizens could be attracted by the possibility of accessing the internet through Syrian servers (and not proxy servers), which permit the government to easily monitor their online activities.

“We are all using it (Facebook) anyway so I don’t see what difference it makes,” said one Facebook member, Ahmad. Technically, the Syrian firewall is extremely omnipresent and it blocks, in addition to Facebook and Co., many other websites like Amazon, Blogspot and Israeli newspapers.

Facebook’s Debbie Frost said that Facebook always monitored some internet traffic from Syria, but honestly not the average number of internet users whom a country like Syria should have. Immediately after the lifting of the ban, Facebook did not notice a significant increase in its traffic in Syria. It’s true that for people it could take hours or also days before getting full internet access. On the other side, there is a very different representation of the current situation by YouTube. The graph below clearly shows that after February 8 and 9, 2011, Syria’s YouTube traffic spiked hugely passing from values between 0 and 3 to values between 20 and almost 100 (97.37 on February 14) . These values are units of Google’s scale, which runs from 0 to 100.

“This is great news” said Mazen Darwish, the president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (a Syrian organization founded in December 2004 and since December 2007 affiliated with Reporters Without Borders). “After what happened on the 4th and the 5th the authorities now know that the Syrian people are not the enemy. We are not stupid and we know how to use these sites with intelligence …. This is not just about Facebook; this is about a change in the mentality that the population needs somehow to be controlled. Things are changing. I hope this is the first step in a broader reform program”, he added.

Lifting the ban in Syria was cheered in Washington, although there are still concerns related to the relevant restrictions on the freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble. Mr. Alec J. Ross, senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Mr. Ross organized a delegation of American business I.C.T. leaders to Syria in June 2010. For more information about this event please see: BACCI, A., U.S. Trade Delegation to Syria, June 2010) openly declared that Syrian citizens should immediately understand the risks of using Facebook and the other websites as if they were in a country with no restrictions on the freedom of speech.     


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